Dark Star Orchestra, Crystal Bay Club, Lake Tahoe, NV – 11/30
Several of us looked at each other, confused. As keyboardist Rob Barraco would mention later, the Grateful Dead had in fact played the Kings Beach Bowl in Lake Tahoe in 1968. That venue, now the local community center, is probably about 3 miles away as the crow flies from were Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) was playing on this night. What Head hasn’t seen the infamous poster for the “Trip and Ski” shows? Whatever, a rookie mistake that we all know has the power to ruin any show. That is, bringing in preconceived notions that the band you’re going to see is going to play, fill in the blank. It happens with Phish, it happens with Panic, and it certainly happens with Dead related shows. In this case, since the Grateful Dead didn’t play in Tahoe that much, and the Kings Beach shows are phenomenal old school bluesy Dead, and were released as Dick’s Pick’s Volume 22, we all figured it was a lock since this was the ‘City Near You’ tour. This meant on each night of DSO’s current tour the band would be recreating a show from a city near the venue where they were playing.
No such luck for our hopes on the ‘68 show. However, I believe this is the magic of DSO. On most nights, DSO recreates whole Grateful Dead shows in their entirety. Most of us who love the Dead know this. If this information is new to you, and you enjoy or think you would enjoy Grateful Dead music, you owe it to yourself to take in a show with these fine musicians. I’ve seen DSO on several occasions, and have taken in shows with John Kadlecik, Stu Allen, and now with their newest addition in Jeff Mattson. John sold me on the idea that these guys were far from a cover band. I found that these guys (and gal) were finely tuned musicians that rocked the Dead like nothing I’d ever seen or thought could exist. After John left to play with Furthur I like many others wondered who, if anyone, could take his place. I love Stu, I think he’s about as good as it gets for a guitar player that speaks to the spirit of the late great Jerry Garcia, but the DSO has settled in with Jeff. An old vet of Dead tunes having played for years with the Zen Tricksters and more recently with Donna Jean’s band, Mr. Mattson is the real deal and a fine fit to a role that only a few souls can adequately fill.
The show was hot. Even though I was so sure they were going drop some gritty old Pigpen Dead, and was not looking for a standard early 70’s show, DSO came out and just let it rip. We all saw there was but one drummer, so the show had have been from a certain period when Mickey was not playing in the band, and it turned out to be 8/12/72 from the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, CA. Take a look at the setlist:
Set 1: Promised Land, Sugaree, Me & My Uncle, Bird Song, Black Throated Wind, Deal, El Paso, Tennessee Jed, Playing In The Band, Big Railroad Blues, Cumberland Blues, Stella Blue, Jack Straw, Casey Jones
Set 2: Greatest Story Ever Told, Ramble On Rose, Beat It On Down The Line, He’s Gone > Drums > The Other One > Black Peter > The Other One > Truckin’, Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo, Sugar Magnolia
E: One More Saturday Night, DSO Filler: Scarlet Begonias
A 14 song first set followed by a 12 song second set, with a filler tune. I was dancing with a good backcountry skiing friend who happens to be an older Head that listens to a lot of electronic music these days. She looked at me at the end of the show smiling ear to ear and said, “I forgot how long Dead shows used to be.” Another friend who could’ve seen countless Dead shows, but never did, was basically there to get down on a usually slow Tuesday in Tahoe. He was super stoked just because of how long DSO played. Ski bums like to get their money’s worth when they throw down on something like show tickets.
By the time I got to hear Mattson really show his licks on the extended jam out of “Bird Song” I had completely forgotten about all the hoopla many of us had built up around the old Kings Beach show. After “Playing in the Band” it seemed like the set was over, but we still had 5 more tunes! It’s amazing the Dead played such full sets, almost 40 years ago, as many acts still to this day might not even play for as long as DSO did in set 1, let alone drop a whole other set of amazingly played music.
“Stella Blue” was another first set highlight that again showcased the amazing intricacy of Mattson’s playing. As set two got rolling, in true Tahoe fashion, everyone was loose, safety meetings were plentiful, and the Crystal Bay Club had transformed into a symbiotic get-down. Of particular interest was the run of “He’s Gone>Drums>Other One>Black Peter>Other>Truckin.” Really the whole show was spot on, but this collection of six songs bled through with seamless segues and beautiful interplay amongst the band members. Throw in an extra “Scarlet Begonias” after an already incredible show and every Tahoe Head that was able to make it to the show was singing, “nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile” as they walked out.
It’s always a treat to see these fine musicians perform, and Jeff Mattson is clearly an epic fit to the bands studied take on Grateful Dead music. Personally, because I wasn’t even alive for several years after this show was played, it’s super cool to get a little taste of what it would have been like to hear a Dead show go down in 1972. And when you have kids talking about how they’re going to make the 10 hour drive to so-cal happen to catch DSO again just because of how rad they thought tonight’s show was, there really is nothing left to do, but smile.