Live review: Dark Star Orchestra @ the Fillmore AuditoriumBy Jonathan Gang and Todd Radunsky | December 13th, 2010 | 6 comments
In addition to the the countless acts that have paid tribute to jam band patriarchs the Grateful Dead in both sound and spirit, there are countless local groups in every city that deal exclusively in the Dead’s extensive songbook. However, as far as close-your-eyes-and-you-could-be-there replication goes, there are few who can compare to the obsessive detail provided by Dark Star Orchestra, a band that has spent the past 11 years touring the world and recreating specific Dead shows.
DSO stresses accuracy beyond everything else — faithfully tailoring their line-up, equipment, stage position and vocal arrangements to the corresponding era and creating an experience that is as close to the real thing as possible. An educated Deadhead could have instantly determined that Saturday’s set at the Fillmore Auditorium was between the years of 1971-1976 on account of only one drummer (Dead drummer Mickey Hart was on hiatus during this period). Further, the vintage equipment on the stage, including the Stratocaster played by the group’s Jerry Garcia clone Jeff Mattson, indicated that the show likely fell on the earlier end of that range.
A theme for the band’s current tour has been to recreate a show historically from the cities in which they’ve been playing, and last night’s choice came from November 21, 1973 at the Denver Coliseum (the band allows fans to spend the show guessing before announcing the date at the end). 1973 was a transitional period for the Dead, which was still firmly rooted in the Americana, bluegrass and roots-rock they had begun exploring late in the previous decade, while beginning to explore some of the extended, proggy compositions and funkier rhythms that would define their work in the later ‘70s.
The set kicked off with several short (i.e. between five and seven minute) renditions of classic staples like “Sugaree,” “Jack Straw” and “Here Comes Sunshine” before diving into the twists and turns of the extended “Weather Report Suite,” played rarely in its entirety.
The second set consisted of several extended, multi-song jams, including the show’s centerpiece, a classic “Playin’ Sandwich,” in which the band began with the song “Playin’ in the Band,” which morphed into the tune “Wharf Rat,” then back into “Playin’” before ending with an extended run through the anthemic “Morning Dew,” making for a nearly 40-minute chunk of uninterrupted music. Upon listening to the original recording of the show as performed by the Dead, it is truly remarkable how faithfully Dark Star recreates the work of their forbearers, in every aspect from the original songs to the extended improvisational passages that were the Dead’s bread and butter.
DSO represents something far beyond a tribute act. It is a living, breathing love letter to the music and spirit of the Grateful Dead, a band whose indelible legacy remains vibrant even as its surviving original members enter their twilight years (bassist Phil Lesh celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year). That this group has been able to sustain itself for over a decade — in which they played upwards of 1,800 shows — is a comforting testament to the fact that even after its creators are gone, the legacy of the Grateful Dead, and perhaps that of the music of 1960s in general, will live on.
Jonathan S. Gang is a Denver-based writer, musician and general adventurer.
Todd Radunsky is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.