Dark Star Orchestra makes you feel the fleeting moment, but the Grateful Dead cover band falls short of recreating entire shows.
There is something inherently sad about a tribute band.
Sure, the music brings you back. There is talent on stage. The music is worthy of tribute and the historical perspective is valuable.
But there is a vague dysphoria up there too, especially when the tribute band is covering a band heralded for its creativity, dynamic interplay and spontaneity. There is no question the musicians of Dark Star Orchestra are skilled. They are master tacticians, able to mirror not just the sound, but the subtle themes and vibes projected by their long-gone mentors, the Grateful Dead.
The 11-year-old DSO sells out venues across the country and is nearing the Grateful Dead’s impressive tally of 2,500 live shows. The band plays entire shows, delivering as close to an exact replica as possible. The same amps and guitars, same arrangement of the pair of drummers. They even fumble the same lyrics as the Grateful Dead was apt to do in its foggiest tours. DSO’s founding keyboardist, the immensely talented Scott Larned, took the gig to eerie heights when he died of a heart attack in 2005 at age 37, the same age the Dead’s keyman Brent Mydland passed.
DSO swung through northwest Denver’s Oriental Theater last weekend for a pair of sold-out shows. The dervish dancing was full tilt inside, with kids who likely never saw the original band wildly spinning for every song. Yes, many of the kids were following the band on tour. A mini-Shakedown flourished outside the theater, with a few looking for their miracle and several staggeringly hairy kids peddling chemicals rarely found among Tennyson’s increasingly tony shops and galleries.
Inside it was a mind-bending time warp with a peanut gallery of tapers recording the overwhelmingly aromatic show. The surprisingly large collection of pot-bellied and tie-dyed graybeards were more reserved than their giddy younger colleagues, in what could only be “tribute dancing.” You can’t give yourself wholly to a tribute band, right? It goes against the reason you first swayed to the tender plucking of The Fat Man.
More than a few times there were gasps -– even an occasional “No way!” -– during DSO’s Saturday show, a mirror of the Dead’s June 11, 1976, show from Boston. Really though, it wasn’t surprising. The show’s set list was written down almost 32 years ago. And it wasn’t one of those shows that would make a fan’s collection of tapes in the VW’s glove box.
Nevertheless, the pair of drummers -– Dino English and Rob Koritz -– reflected a noticeably down tempo flavor of the original show, with the increasingly Jerry-like John Kadlecik infusing a country-traditional spirit into the show’s first set. I used to call ‘em the cowboy tunes, relics from the band’s not-very-inventive mid-’70s: “Might as Well,” “Mama Tried,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Cassady,” “Big River,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Lazy Lightning,” “Promised Land.”
The second set was more scorching, with bassist Kevin Rosen almost filling mighty Phil’s shoes in the “St. Stephen” opener. Kadlecik, his unkempt hair and blossoming belly keeping him in character, has got the head-tilted lilt of the original Fat Man down. Close your eyes and it isn’t hard to hear the master during his stellar “Stella Blue.” Rob Eaton is so much like Bobby it hurts, even mirroring the extra-sharp cheese that addled so many Dead shows. And then there’s Donna, played by Lisa Mackey.
Donna Godchaux sucked in the ’70s, with her vibe-crushing wailing. Her doppelganger is no better. Wearing what appeared to be 1970s-era headphones, the DSO Donna danced in a mutating stagger between her every-third-song caroling. It was endless fun to imagine her listening to something other than the band. Was it disco? Maybe the Bee Gees? Or was it new wave, “Til Tuesday” maybe? Her moves had no correlation with what was happening on stage and the best view included a set of stinky dreads blocking her out altogether.
I know the hippie haters thrive on Reverb, home to the hippest hipsters with the squarest eyeglasses in town. I’m not piling on just to be cool. But DSO leaves me strangely tense, even uncomfortable. I want to enjoy them, but something prevents me from taking the plunge. Nostalgically, I love the music and for a few brief moments Saturday, I was ferried back to a carefree summer when what mattered most was Jerry’s choice and selling enough Sammy Smith bombers in the post-show lot to reach the next gig.
For anyone who has ever known the Grateful Dead, DSO is a must-visit, just for those brief moments. They are gone and nothing’s gonna bring them back. But DSO can deliver fleeting glimpses.