Dark Star Orchestra @ The Capitol Theatre – May 9
Words: Chad Berndtson
They’re a tribute group, yes, and there will always be fans that just can’t get past that as a fundamental flaw. But I’ll say it again knowing full well what I’m in for: Dark Star Orchestra is the band from which I get the most Grateful Dead nourishment out of any touring ensemble these days.
I know what you’re saying, and some days, you’re right. And, look, I like Furthur just fine. And if Phil stops through with just about any group of Friends, I’m in. And Bob will be back soon in fighting shape, I’m sure, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of TRI Studios and Weir Here next. And 7 Walkers has so many great reasons for being, one of which is keeping Bill Kreutzmann out there and playing. And if you haven’t yet experienced the current, space-a-delic lineup of the Mickey Hart Band, you’re missing a group that’s become a must-see – an event – in a very short amount of time.
But I keep going back to DSO – and I said “going back,” not “falling back.” Consider: they’re closing in on 2,200 shows – the band they salute topped out at 2,315, remember – and despite tragedy, lineup shifts and the ever-more-challenging economic stressors placed on a touring rock ‘n’ roll band, they’ve not only endured, but remain ubiquitous, with some national markets able to count on two, sometimes three visits per year.
They’ve done all this without deviating from the core mission, yet they play their asses off every night at a musical and improvisational level that hasn’t once devolved into gimmickry. They’ve earned the respect of the surviving Grateful Dead members themselves — who’ve sat in with the group on several occasions and even plucked one of their former core members — not to mention legions of other folks holding stakes in the Dead legacy.
I thought about all this heading into the revitalized Capitol Theater – itself a hugely significant location in Dead lore — for DSO’s spring/summer tour opener Thursday, where, as was widely anticipated, they recreated a legendary Port Chester Dead show from the very same venue. Far have they come, and uniquely so, in that they’ve created their own legacy while devoting themselves almost entirely to another band’s. I’m comforted and excited it’s all going to continue, even with another major transition – the departure of bassist and longest-tenured DSO member Kevin Rosen – pending.
The Cap was comfortably crowded, meaning a lot of people there but plenty of room to move, dance and bliss out. And bliss this was: an extremely generous setlist selection that both paid tribute to the temple – Rob Barraco: “I wish we could play here every night” – and made a statement about DSO’s intensity, versatility and resolve.
The original 11/6/70 Dead show was an acoustic set and a long electric set (and a New Riders set), but DSO split the electric set into logical halves. The effect over three and a half wondrous hours was of a well-paced meal: a warm, folksy acoustic-set appetizer; a buoyant first electric set that nailed the herky-jerky, start-stop feel of 1970 Dead setlists that had one foot in the late 60s and one foot in the Americana to come; a monster, Pigpen-centric boogie-fest freakout second electric set; and a tasty dessert filler of Easy Wind and a just-right Ripple.
It was possible to admire period details: the filthy King Bee (hi Lisa Mackey back there on crisp harmonica!), the gossamer Dark Hollow, the spectral weirdness of the Mickey Hart-created Main Ten excursion, the China/Rider combo that in 1970 was still finding its legs and which DSO deftly played at the clipped, abruptly-transitioning pace of the era, the Mountain Jam (!) detour during that long, collapsing-star journey through Not Fade Away.
It was also possible just to absorb the flow of music, especially in the second electric set’s sinewy, continuous suite and unrelenting showcase for Jeff Mattson’s alternately starry and gnarly progressions. Everyone in the band had much to offer, especially Barraco, who wears his clear, unabashed love for Pigpen raps with every beatific grin and bounce in his legs.
Yes, this was a show high on Dead geek curios and rewards. It was also the first show for bassist Skip Vangelas, who’s among the rotating cast filling Rosen’s bass chair after Rosen (who is out for the six NYC-area shows but will return later this month leading up to his planned June 1 finale) transitions. If Vangelas gets the permanent job, you’d find no argument here. Tentative and even-keeled at first, he found his groove midway through the first electric set and started to take chances, such that by the dance-a-thon Not Fade Away sandwich you felt him, full-bore. He’ll be A.O.K.
DSO performed 11/6/70, Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY (note: original show was one long electric set, not split)
Set 1 (acoustic): Don’t Ease Me In, Deep Elem Blues, Dark Hollow, Friend of the Devil, The Rub, Black Peter, El Paso, Brokedown Palace, Uncle John’s Band
Set 2 (electric): Casey Jones, Me and My Uncle, King Bee, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Truckin’, Candyman, Sugar Magnolia, Good Lovin’ > drums > The Main Ten > Good Lovin’
Set 3 (electric): Alligator > Jam > Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad > Mountain Jam > Not Fade Away > Caution > Turn On Your Lovelight
Filler: Easy Wind, Ripple