Premiere Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra returned to their Chicago roots 5-6 February for a traditional two-night run at the Vic Theatre. Since 1997, DSO has exclusively paid tribute to the Grateful Dead, evoking the band’s spirit and live energy by recreating genuine Dead performances. To ensure authenticity DSO adapts their vocal arrangements, equipment, stage set-up and musical phrasings to match the Dead’s approach during a given era. The musicians make the music their own by filling in the blanks with their own improvisations, styles and seasonings. Adding to the intrigue of each performance, DSO puts expert Deadheads to the test by withholding the actual performance date until the end.
I was able to catch the first night of the ride which replicated 29 April, 1972, originally performed at the Musikhalle in Hamburg, Germany. Dead vet Donna Jean Godchaux opened the evening with the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson. Godchaux performed with the Grateful Dead, alongside her late husband Keith, from 1972 to 1979; Donna was background vocals and Keith played keyboards.
The 5 February audience appeared to have mixed emotions regarding Godchaux’s presence. Outside the Vic, concertgoers voiced their opinions on Godchaux’s chords: one man thought she sounded like a “dying animal,” while some felt her contributions disrupted the Dead’s groove. Other fans relayed their appreciation for Godchaux’s vocal range and strength.
Her set drew a good-sized crowd as she laid down both original and Dead tunes. I felt her voice sounded as good as ever with a cross between a croon and freestyle-jazz.
Donna Jean Godchaux Band
Her band added a modest accompaniment without getting carried away with over-the-top jam sessions. The Donna Jean Godchaux Band ended their brief set with the upbeat Dead classic “Samson and Delilah”, which pumped the crowd for what was to come.
Godchaux’s band has frequently opened for DSO, and it is not uncommon for her to join them on stage lending her vocals. Unfortunately “Samson and Delilah” was the last of Godchaux, for she did not accompany DSO that night, leaving all of the female vocals to resident belter Lisa Mackey. DSO took stage around 10 P.M. and immediately set into “Playing in the Band”.
They were joined onstage by Donna Jean Godchaux Band guitarist Jeff Mattson (Zen Tricksters, Phil Lesh and Friends), who pulled double duty; Mattson has been temporarily filling the void of DSO co-founder and lead guitarist John Kadlecik. He left the band in December to join the ranks of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh with their latest project Furthur. Kadlecik was infamous for channeling the sound of the late Jerry Garcia’s guitar technique and vocals, leaving big shoes to fill. Mattson is one of two potential replacements and will be on a trial run with the band through March.
Immediately, Mattson’s guitar playing matched every intricate moment “Playing in the Band” had to offer. Between his guitar work, Mackay’s vocals and Rob Barraco’s attention to detail on keyboards, the band sounded alive and robust. However, less than five minutes into the song, the band segued into a detailed, premature jam. There was barely any build-up or ease into the music before the jam entranced the audience, leading many of the youngsters to circle and weave their arms in the air. Personally I was not wrapped up in the music enough to get lost in the impromptu session, leading my interest towards the back of the venue.
Another minor letdown was the absence of drummer Dino English, leaving a traditionally two-piece rhythm section in the hands of lone percussionist Rob Koritz.
The lack of English took away some of the round, circular bottom the original Rhythm Devils (Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann) instated. Luckily, bassist Kevin Rosen filled the music’s bottom with a kinetic flow of bass. Rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton also helped seal the gaps with various underlying embellishments and twinkles.
The remainder of the first set dabbled between full bodied, blues influenced tunes, such as “Mr. Charlie”, “Big Boss Man”, and “Good Lovin’”, and coasting Americana ditties like “Chinatown Shuffle” and “Me and My Uncle”. Though I appreciated the diversity of the tunes, not all of the jams were captivating or memorable.
It was not until the second set that the overall tone of the show pulled me in. DSO returned to the stage after set break with a bang, performing the energetic prose, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. After several straight-forward numbers the band dove into the epic “Dark Star”. The complexities of “Dark Star” brought forth intricate playing from each musician, demonstrating player’s ability to communicate with each other via their instruments. As a whole, the band paid superb attention to detail, staying cohesively together throughout, all while floating towards “Space”.
With only one drummer the “Space” segment of the performance ran a little thin, but was quickly amped up with the upbeat favorite “Sugar Magnolia.” Looking around there was nothing but smiles plastered on fans’ faces as they swayed and bounced around to the beat. “Sugar Magnolia” was preceded by a jazzy rendition of “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” which banked on the backbeat while both Eaton and Mattson steered with their guitars.
Both sets included a stellar selection of songs, which mixed and matched everything from psychedelic wanderings, blues-infused vocals, Americana twang, and improvisational rock, all with a hint of freestyle jazz. There were an abundance of Pigpen tunes, the Dead’s original keyboardist, which allowed Barraco to show off his ability to ad-lib in a bluesy timbre. There were also several greatest hits shuffled in the mix that made for a safe and not entirely surprising selection of songs; however the predictable nature comes with the territory of covering a performance verbatim. I observed several newer fans unfamiliar with the band’s formula shouting out requests for popular favorites such as “Casey Jones”, “Jack Straw”, “Sugar Magnolia”, and “Uncle John’s Band”; lucky for them their requests were satisfied for they were already factored into the mix. The only request that went ignored was “Free Bird” (how original).
In total, DSO played for an admirable four hours. They served their mission of rousing the energy and intrigue that goes along with the Grateful Dead’s music by sparking memories for old-timers and creating new ones for the inexperienced.
On the rail
Rob Eaton and Lisa Mackey
Rob Eaton, Lisa Mackey and Jeff Mattson
On the rail
Kevin Rosen and Rob Eaton