JAM Magazine Concert Reviews

February 16, 2012
House of Blues - Cleveland
Cleveland, OH USA
Review by David Brais
Photos by David Brais

Dark Star Orchestra

I used to brag to all my friends that if you needed to know anything about the Grateful Dead, I was your man. I had seen them numerous times over the years, traded tapes, told numerous stories of my good ol' days traveling around to follow the band. So, when I was given an assignment to cover a Grateful Dead tribute band called Dark Star Orchestra, I was quite skeptical not only of the assignment, but that anyone could really capture the spirit, and especially the music, of my all time favorite band.

I'll be completely honest here. Dark Star Orchestra took me completely by surprise as they performed onstage at the House of Blues in Cleveland. Their musicianship was impeccable. As the group launched into "Alabama Getaway", "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Sugaree," I even closed my eyes at various moments just to reconfirm what was transpiring on stage. The music, for lack of a better word, was 'dead' on. The attention to the little nuances the Grateful Dead were always known for in concert was captured in stunning detail right in front of me. Let me tell you something. Calling Dark Star Orchestra a tribute band was a true disservice to these remarkable musicians.

Also so my surprise, this show was broken up into two separate sets. Both lasted about two hours, which was also remarkable given most shows last two hours and that's it. But we're talking about the music of the Grateful Dead here, and no two shows of this band were ever alike. Tonight, I found out DSO was recreating the Dead's September 6, 1980 performance in Lewiston, Maine. For all you Deadhead tape collectors, the group had just released their eleventh studio recording, Go to Heaven, like a week before. This was their first show supporting the record. I asked a roadie in between sets about the stage set up, and she told me Dark Star Orchestra recreates 13 different stage designs from original Grateful Dead tours. Now that's attention to detail.

The 800 plus people in attendance were there to rekindle old memories, and relive them as well. Throughout the night, I found time to talk to various people in the crowd. To my amazement, I discovered almost no one in the crowd was from Cleveland. These DSO fans had travelled from Philly, Detroit, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and points beyond to see this band perform. I was rather shocked that a city of Cleveland's musical stature was so misrepresented this evening. Then again, who was I to talk? I had no idea of the greatness that lie within the Dark Star Orchestra until I witnessed it first hand.

Over the years, I've listened to other groups attempt to cover Dead songs and fail miserably because of one important missing link – the bass player. Not here, not with this band. DSO's Kevin Rosen mimicked the Dead's Phil Lesh lick for lick. Whether he was playing "Me and My Uncle" or "Uncle John's Band," Rosen worked his instrument to perfection as he recreated the past. His steady work was augmented by the duel drum work of Rob Koritz and Dino English. These two were another delightful surprise. They drove the music with a steady, driving beat and were in perfect synchronization song after song after song. Their strokes on such songs like "Friend of the Devil" and "Sugar Magnolia" reminded me of pistons revving up a 442 engine.

This brings me to Jeff Mattson and Rob Eaton. Their fretwork provided a bottomless pool of guitar licks and leads that many Deadheads in this crowd would have loved to drown themselves in. Who knows, they probably did. If I had any lingering doubts as to the validity of Dark Star Orchestra tackling the Grateful Dead repertoire, it was put to rest with Rob Barraco's magnificent keyboard work. There aren't enough metaphors I can use to describe not only his work, but his fellow musicians as well. Trust me folks, this band is the real deal.

You could pick any song from this evening's show, and Jeff Matson vocals sounded so much like the original, it literally sent shivers up and down my spine. Again, all you had to do was close your eyes, and you'd swear it was Jerry Garcia onstage singing "Tennessee Jed", "Shakedown Street" or "Not Fade Away." This talented group of musician's skills wasn't lost on the crowd either. They truly appreciated the depth and scope DSO undertook to copy everything Dead. Throughout the night, those in attendance sang every word to every song. This was not an audience that would ever be fooled by imitators. They completely understood what was unfolding before them and were more than ‘grateful' to be a part of the experience. When each tune was completed, they showered DSO with thunderous ovations.

I'm a bit ashamed Dark Star Orchestra has escaped my attention all these many years. The fact I'm telling you my favorite song of the evening, "Little Red Rooster," only touches the surface of my admiration for this group. Rob Eaton's vocals and slide guitar were impeccable. Not only did his vocals capture the very essence of Bob Weir, but his slide technique was a cross between Weir and Dickey Betts. I swear I felt like a gushing school boy with a crush on his teacher watching him perform.

The one thing that always rang true with Dead songs is their length. No one tune ever had a prescribed stopping point. Every song was open to interpretation the night the band performed it. Watching Eaton and Mattson trade leads was an almost magical experience. This crowd knew it as well. Everyone around me was completely into what Dark Star Orchestra was recreating on stage. I was so lost in the moment, or moments I should say, the first two hours of the show literally flew by.

The second show started at 10:30 with "Shakedown Street", "Lost Sailor", and "Saint of Circumstance." The crowd favorite was "Uncle John's Band." The eclectic makeup of the audience really encompassed all ages. They jumped and danced with more energy in the second set than the first. DSO showed their appreciation by not sparing one ounce of energy in their effort to deliver the original "Dead" setlist from that 1980 Labor Day show. After the second set ended with "Sugar Magnolia", I was literally drained and just flat out tired. But I soldiered on for the encores "One More Saturday Night" and "Broke Down Palace." That was it for me. I just couldn't take any more. I was officially on Grateful Dead overload.

For the uninitiated like yours truly, the Dark Star Orchestra was truly an eye-opening experience. Everything about this group was brilliant. This band is so close to the real thing, I found out that it's not uncommon to find family members from the original Dead attend a Dark Star Orchestra performance. That is the highest compliment you could ever pay a tribute band. And again, the word tribute really doesn't do DSO justice.

I walked into the House of Blues earlier in the night a confident Deadhead. I walked out a complete ‘dudhead' instead. Here I thought I knew everything there is to know about the iconic Grateful Dead, yet a group of DSO's stature had escaped my notice all these many years. I won't ever be making that mistake again. It's time for Cleveland to wake up as well.