Dark Star Orchestra

by Darren Ratner

25 May 2006

Raising the dead or spinning them in their graves?

“For Jerry Garcia, I would stand,” she said.

The woman was sitting behind me at the Nokia Theatre—a beautiful, state-of-the-art venue in the heart of Times Square. She sipped her frothy-yet-expensive brew and exchanged glances with her male companion. They were thinking back on beloved Grateful Dead singer/songwriter Jerry Garcia and his legacy. It was as terrible as it was tender.

Dark Star Orchestra

13 May 2006: Nokia Theatre — New York

“When I was younger, I could stand through an entire show without a problem,” she said, taking another sip from her cup. “But now, I don’t have the strength.”

Dark Star Orchestra had quite the task in front of them. They’re seven Deadheads attempting to bang out some of the most spirited, poignant jams from the Dead’s 30-plus year history. It’s reasonable to assume that they might annoy the baby-boomers, or, for that matter, any fans intimately connected with the original band. What’s more, this show was is in the Big Apple, and, in New York, even the deadheads are a tough crowd to please. But, despite these obstacles, Dark Star Orchestra had success in their homage, winning the approval of much of the drunk, stoned and sandaled audience.

Rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton and lead guitarist John Kadlecik (playing the parts of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir) effortlessly recreated riff after riff on epic tracks like “I Know You Rider”, “Deal”, and “Dark Star”. Vocalist Lisa Mackey—literally taking center stage—dove further into ‘60s nostalgia as she dipped and turned her body, flower-child style. Drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz (playing the parts of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) showed their percussive prowess by masterfully blending eclectic beats and measures—making it all sound wonderfully in-sync. Carefree arrangements, sharp instrumentals, chilled-out and tripped-out moods defined the show, and the appeal was difficult to deny.

Of course, there was room for something a bit more psychedelic. A few minutes into the second set—around 10:45 PM—the band exited the stage, leaving English and Koritz to themselves. Jovial jam-band songs disappeared as kaleidoscopic colors and shapes beamed across the stage. For thirty minutes they unleashed a musical diatribe of weird snares, chilling cymbals and woozy, otherworldly synthesizers.

“Play a fucking song,” exclaimed a man in the audience.

You had to give him credit: he said what many folks in the house couldn’t bring themselves to say. Clearly, this ethereal portion of the concert was meant to create a feeling larger than individual notes and beats. Maybe that “feeling” is what the Dead were all about, and Dark Star Orchestra were tapping into it as best they could. Maybe the awkwardness in sound and arrangement allowed a much-needed escape from a radio-friendly reality.

Whatever it was meant to do, the shift from jumping jams to sonic psychedelics turned the peace-and-love atmosphere into something edgy and unexpected. There may have been those in the theatre that appreciated the raw improvisation. Heck, improvisation makes up a lot of both the jam-band and psychedelic sound. It was still an audio-visual blast to the senses that should have ended after 15 minutes.

From the looks of people dancing in the isles, though, the sudden switch didn’t ruin the anyone’s momentum, at least not permanently. By the end of the night, Dark Star Orchestra had put much of the theatre into fits of musical passion, igniting what ended up as an oversized house party; and, maybe, that was the idea. The younger folks were swinging, the older folks were swaying, and a “feeling” had returned for a lot of people.

I picked up my pen and pad and headed for the exit, only to notice that the woman sitting behind me was no longer sitting. She got to her feet, moved to the music, and smiled.

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