Dark Star Orchestra @ the Oriental Theater - Reverb - Reverb

Dark Star Orchestra @ the Oriental Theater

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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.

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  • http://www.getrealdenver.com/ John Wenzel

    Oh, Blevins… thanks for being such a good sport about some of our readers’ distaste for jam bands. Diverse voices are good on Reverb. If every review was about Vampire Weekend, I’d probably ram my head through my computer monitor.

  • James Reis

    This is a refreshing review. I have been to many DSO shows and have just a couple of comments. I think the DSO truly enjoys playing the Dead and although it may be a cover band, I tend to think of Dead songs as something with a life of their own that many bands could play. At the other end of the spectrum, some bands under or over interpret them, which is fine. I think the DSO is not nearly as stoned as the Dead were (and certainly not in the ’70’s bubble) and so every show is not influenced by (and neither am I) an outside psychedelic force. That being said, I’ve seen a few sets and even a few whole shows by these guys and was absolutely blown away. I’m a fierce critic and the first one to say that the Dead are GONE. I didn’t think it was the Dead, or a tribute, but it was the same s#*t pouring out of that stage into my brain and making me twitch with delight. Somebody gave them the keys to the Vista Cruiser, but on this night, they did not take you for a ride.

  • JW

    Jason, thumbs up to you for your honest review.

    As a 25+ year Deadhead, I’ve seen DSO a few times…and to be frank, while
    they “play” the Dead well, their onstage mannerisms are a complete turn-off
    for me. The first time I saw them, they played a show which I had attended — 4/9/1988 – Worcester Centrum — and once I figured out the show, all the adventure was gone because I KNEW where they were going every second.
    What is the GD without the adventure? My answer is DSO.

    While all musicians have a right to earn a good living, I have a major issue with a band whom as far as I am concerned are simply living off the coattails of the good old GD! I’ve seen many a cover band over the years — including GD cover bands — and for me, the bottom line is that DSO is simply not The Real Thing but a soulless facsimile!

    The last time I saw DSO was JamGrass 2002 at the Harborlights Pavilion in Boston, where they “headlined” in a show that featured David Grisman, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Jorma Kaukonen and John Cowan. I was front row, dead center…and wound up leaving less than 30 minutes into DSO’s set. The fact they were a “headliner” was among the biggest insults ever to this 28+ year concert-goer. A cover band over *original* artists!

    If you enjoy DSO, do so to the fullest. However, for me, it is simply not the Real Thing! In fact, after that first DSO experience, I played a Dick’s Pick in my vehicle. It was the first time I smiled that night because — warts and all — I was finally listening to The Real Thing!

  • Matt S

    I saw the Grateful Dead 35 times.. believe me, 1995 wasn’t a tour filled year of mystical music.. a lot of it sucked. DSO has off nights just like the Dead did.. at their best they are wizards, and for spinners like me they are the only show in town.. I think they’re awesome, and when you meet the guys in the band you find out that they are some of the coolest people around and passionate tour heads. I’ve seen them blow shows (Park West 2007), but I’ve also left some of their shows stunned speechless (Nelson’s Ledges 2006). I saw the Dead blow shows, also (try 7/2/1995, or any 1995 tour from hell shows). DSO rocks out and at their best they transcend music. Other times they just don’t wake the beast and I leave the show early.. What’s different about this then when the Dead were on tour and the “Fat Man” was slurring 37.6% of his lyrics and just a gray ghost of a presence on the stage? People forget the quite a few Grateful Dead shows really sucked in the end, and it was awful/horrible to watch Jerry die right in front of your eyes, night after night.

  • jason blevins

    Thanks James, JW, Matt for commenting. I saw the Grateful Dead a bit, somewhere between 60-70 times between 90-95, including most of the w. coast’s 94 tour. I saw a fair share of half-a$$ shows. (Who can forget The Fat Man blowing the apex of Terrapin … how do you forget “Inspiration!” … at McNicks 11-30?)
    You’re right,Matt, most people do forget the blunders and embrace the peaks. I prefer remembering over reliving because, really, there are no do-overs. Get it more than once and it loses that luster that left you near tears the first time around.