Dark Star Orchestra, The Belly Up Tavern, Solana Beach, CA – 12/6
An image from earlier in the tour by Vernon Webb
Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) returned to Southern California for their biannual two night stand in suburban San Diego’s Solana Beach. This time it was part of their “City Near You” tour, which puts a slight twist on DSO’s distinctive Grateful Dead simulation act. Their simple but rather ingenious idea was to recreate a concert from the Dead’s vast archives that took place near stops on the tour, thus adding a little local immediacy to the usual proceedings. According to some fans, the previous night’s gig evidently ripped-it-up as DSO recreated a show from one of the Dead’s “golden eras, “ namely, the 12/27/78 San Diego show (Golden Hall, Community Concourse). DSO’s second night at the Belly Up, however, would prove to be a self-admitted challenge. Because the band had already previously contracted months earlier for this Monday show to be an acoustic night, DSO’s set list guru Rob Eaton really had to search high-and-low for an acoustic show that took place in San Diego. To his credit he found one.
The show kicked off right-on-the dot, at 9:00 p.m., on a chilly (for San Diego), misty, sleepy night that saw the venue only about three-quarters full of DSO and Dead die-hards. As such, the crowd was a bit older than the multi-age, warmer-weather Belly Up shows earlier this year. The outside scene was smaller and seemingly limited to only about one display of the requisite lot T- shirts and marked a dramatic departure from the more atmospheric concert scene of DSO’s previous stint in this beach-side city. It being an acoustic show too, expectations couldn’t be particularly high that it would be a blistering, high-energy electric show like the previous night’s 1978 barn-burner. Unfortunately, those realistic expectations were spot-on. This was a fairly slow, low-key affair that was hardly DSO’s fault. Rather, the situation owed itself more to the fact that this one acoustic San Diego show Eaton found was itself rather slow and low-key. The mood of the concert sort of fit the night too – sweet and good-natured but possessive of a palpable hangover from the previous night’s raucous festivities. So maybe a little acoustic Dead was just the ticket.
The show was about as folksy as Sarah Palin tries to be. “Candyman” was the opener and featured DSO’s “Jerry”, Jeff Mattson, playing a fine early ‘70s Garcia guitar, and Lisa Mackey bringing some nice “Donna” touches to the mix. Eaton followed with a rather standard, but always welcome, rendition of “El Paso” with a few of his usual Bobby trappings (minus Weir’s rather amusing old-school “I’m a rock star” electric show arrogance). The night’s occasional bluegrass focus came into first bloom with “Rosalie McFall,” which featured some good ol’ fashioned pickin’ by Mattson. A few rollicking, twangy, country tunes followed, with the stand-out being probably “Tell It To Me,” and “Drink Up and Go Home.” The set then took a spiritual turn when the band broke out some solid, heart-felt gospel tunes. The highlight of this triptych was probably “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” which resembled the 1987 version found on the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s “Almost Acoustic” album. Eaton was all-smiles as keyboardist Rob Barraco, playing a beautiful piano tonight, traded impressive guitar licks with Mattson. The next phase of the set marked a more “seedier side” than the “good news” of the gospel, as Mattson quickly pointed out, featuring some more countrified numbers like “Deep Elem Blues,” which felt like the band’s first real opportunity to air things out musically. “Dark Hollow,” a sped-up, lightning-quick “Friend of the Devil” and serviceable “Moma Tried” followed. A somber retelling of “To Lay Me Down” halted any steam this plodding set had been trying to build, and seemed about out-of-place as it must have been at the original show. A rousing “Dire Wolf,” always fun for an acoustic show, tried mightily to get that pizzazz back, and closed the set along with a “Ballad of Casey Jones.”
And with that, the night’s Dead re-creation was over almost as fast as it begun, the band explaining that because the original show, taken from August 5, 1970, was so short in its original two sets that they decided to mash-‘em-up and make them the first set of this particular gig. The fact it was a 1970 show, featuring Pigpen of all people, made it hard to understand why Mackey’s “Donna” was included here. Oh well. So much for Dead verisimilitude …. It’s difficult to comment on the performance of DSO’s drummer/percussionists, Dino English and Rob Koritz, since the limitations of the acoustic set basically relegated them to a supporting position featuring mostly drum brushes instead of sticks. Not sure what Phil played back on that 1970 night but bassist Kevin Rosen played electric bass here. Unfortunately, he kept a low profile too.
When DSO returned from a break of reasonable duration, it delivered an original set list of its own. A smattering of wacky holiday-related ditties, one or two Dead songs (including a humorous “Operator” sung by Barraco), some Dead/Dylan covers, and Jerry Band chestnuts, were shaken into a fitting nightcap for an otherwise subdued Monday night. Unfortunately, because it was a “school night,” the crowd started to thin fairly early. Personally, I, too, had to get up early the next morning, and left around 11:45, missing probably what was to be the night’s sentimental favorite, the “Ripple” encore.
Set One: Candyman , El Paso , Rosalie McFall , Tell It To Me , Drink Up And Go Home , A Voice From On High , Cold Jordan > Swing Low Sweet Chariot Deep Elem Blues , Dark Hollow , Friend Of The Devil , Mama Tried , To Lay Me Down , Dire Wolf , The Ballad Of Casey Jones
Set Two: Run, Rudolph, Run , Walk In THe Sunshine , Jack-a-Roe , Queen Jane , Operator , Overseas Stomp (Lindbergh Hop) , Big Iron , Lazy River Road , On The Road Again , The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion) , The Race Is On , Gomorrah , Midnight Moonlight
Encore: Let Me Sing Your Blues Away , Strange Man , Ripple