Back to the Future with the Dark Star Orchestra
Hop into my time machine. It is a rainy and cool Sunday evening in North Florida and I am in a Honda Pilot populated by members of the Woodstock nation. We splash our way North on A1A and in tiny Ponte Vedra we pull over when through the mist we see the neon sign for a concert hall on an old, well buttressed Baptist church.
The room is small and the industrial carpeting as uninviting as the $8 drafts of Bud Light. The conversation drifts naturally to our first Grateful Dead shows. Irene’s was actually at Woodstock and Jay said his was at a festival right around that time down in Dania Florida. The Pigpen years.
I didn’t catch my first show until 1979 when I emerged from a cloud of pot smoke into the old Boston Garden, a wide-eyed 15 year old.
The lights dimmed in Ponte Vedra and the seven members of the Dark Star Orchestra casually ambled on to the stage like they were meeting friends at a diner. The first jangly guitar chords resonated immediately. “Dancing in the Streets,” that Motown masterpiece that had all the Heads kicking up the dirt in Grateful Dead parking lot scenes all over America during those vibrant mid-eighties tours. But something was different. The melody was very slow. The way the Dead covered the song when it was still a radio hit. When Pig was fronting the band. It dawned on the crowd like a winning lottery ticket. It was a 1967 show. This was the show the DSO faithful were waiting for. And in the most unlikely of places on the penultimate stop of a grueling tour!
When the segue from “Dancin” into “Till the Morning Comes” was complete the light from smart phones began to twinkle throughout the audience. The Googling began. Was it really a 1967 nugget? Well no, but it was a setlist of the bands own making designed to conjure any of the amazing Sunday afternoon shows at the Fillmore West in 1967 or 1968, when rock and the Dead, were still young. And the crowd, as an ebullient group, went to that place. The Time Machine worked on this rainy night in Florida.
Covers and traditional rockers from that era populated the first set. “Hard to Handle,” “Deep Elum Blues,” “Good Lovin,” “Sitting on top of the World,” “It Hurts Me Too” and a heartwarming and enthusiastic “Silver Threads” belted out by Lisa Mackay, who usually sings the Donna part for DSO, had the crowd shaking their heads in delight. This 15-year-old hard touring band is dedicated to providing an authentic as possible Grateful Dead experience and most nights they recreate a show, song for song, from the 1970’s, 1980’s or the early 1990’s. And those shows usually mine deeply from the 1970 Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums as well as later popular works. But this was primal Dead. A lot of territory seemed uncharted, even for the DSO, with roadies bringing out sheet music stands for rarely unearthed gems like “Easy Wind,” “Doin’ That Rag” and “Mason’s Children.”
Again, this is a rugged hard working band. On this particular Sunday they had just come off back to back shows in Orlando and St. Pete, effectively crisscrossing the confusingly big state of Florida in a weekend. It might not have been in keyboardist Rob Barraco’s comfort zone to channel Pig Pen for his classic rave-up raps during “Good Lovin’” or “Lovelight” but that didn’t seem to matter. Impersonating the Pig (or the Dead for that matter) is impossible but putting all your heart and soul into honoring the songs he made his own worked perfectly for the journeyman keyboardist and the rest of the band on this night.
By setbreak everyone knew “The Other One” and “Dark Star” would be on the menu during this show “in the old time tradition,” and Zen Tricksters founding member Jeff Mattson did not disappoint during the ethereal Jerry parts. He even perched his lead guitar just so on his puffy belly the way Garcia did when his frame began to inflate in the mid-eighties.
“Dark Star” segued cleanly into “St. Stephen” on this night of musical wonder and then into a strongly played “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” with “Lovelight” winding up the second set.
Rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton told the crowd that they were wrapping up a tour that “went on forever,” and he wasn’t exaggerating. But there is no rest for this road hungry crew who played and an outdoor show on Tuesday February 25, in Fort Lauderdale and then were preparing to jet down to Jamaica for their second wintertime four night Jam in the Sand. When they get back from Jamaica they will play 30 shows in April and May alone out West before the summer touring schedule starts.
Despite the pace the momentum seems fresh. On Feb. 18 in Birmingham former Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay sang vocals on a handful of gems from a 1972 show the band recreated that night. The same week one of the DSO alumnae, John Kadlecik, now a member of Furthur, sat in with Bob Weir and RatDog for an entire set in Washington D.C.
It is in fact mind boggling how this band has stepped up to fill the shoes of the culture-bearers they cover. But that kind of mind boggling seems to be par for the course when you step on the DSO Time Machine.