Are you a Grateful Dead snob? An easy way to answer that question is to read through the following list of statements. If any describe you, then you might fit the bill.
1. You will only listen to soundboard recordings.
2. You measure a person based on how many shows they saw, regardless of their age.
3. People who think Phish was the logical next step after The Grateful Dead don't have a clue.
4. You don't like Donna.
5. You don't get the growing obsession with Dark Star Orchestra.
6. When listening to a bootleg, you insist on listening to drums and space, just so you get a real feel for the show.
7. You don't like Vince.
8. You know who The Warlocks were.
9. You take pride in your ability to predict a show's year based on crowd noise, recording quality and tuning sounds- all happening before the first note
10. You never went in to see the opener, forgoing Sting, Traffic, Dylan, and New Riders of The Purple Sage, just to name a few.
Do these describe you? Even a little bit? Well, its okay. Truth be told, a few of these describe yours truly. And I will even admit, there was a time when I didn't quite get Dark Star Orchestra. But, as the years have passed and the biting cynicism of my 20's has been replaced with the harmony of my 30's, shows like last Tuesday's DSO extravaganza at The Higher Ground showed me just how important this band is to our ever-growing family. As Laura and I made our way through the parking lot on this cold December night, there seemed to be a different vibe in the air than I had felt before any other show at our new favorite venue. It was an unpretentious vigor. The gathering crowd was larger, it's conversations more animated. More dreadlocks. More fingers in the air. More cops. More heated discussions about last night's performance. More scrambling for the last few tickets available minutes before show time. More scalping for the precious extras after the staff loudly proclaimed that the show was sold out- much to the dismay of the four young men standing at the ticket window.
After a thorough pat down, my first here in Vermont, we were into the venue. What the staff's announcement hadn't prepared us for was that, not only was the show a sell out, but all of the ticket holders were on time. No matter if you were trying to get a spot in the front or a spot in the back, the people were tightly packed all around you, but exuberant, like skydivers waiting to be thrust into the air. When the lights dropped it was as if the back of the plane opened and the cool air hit us all in the face. Excitement became our master and… wait a minute. This is a band that recreates something that others have already produced. Why am I so excited about... I let these negative thoughts melt away into the screams of the young and old all around me. I surrendered to their happiness. After all, scientists have proven it's contagious. Look it up.
The lights came up on stage and the straightforward, tye-dye backdrops reminded me that the roots of the psychedelic age are intertwined with the roots of The Grateful Dead's music. It's a symbiotic relationship. Perhaps DSO is simply the steward of this abstract message, holding onto its purity for the next generation to see.
The band took the stage one by one and each member was visibly moved by the intensive energy that greeted them. Keyboardist Rob Barraco shook his head in disbelief at the throngs of hippies that were not yet ready to settle into a winter slumber on this cold Vermont night. The crowd's restlessness was true; collective nerves and excitement for the impending first notes of the night.
The band tapped into the room's collective potency, coming out of the gates with a chant that let us know we were all together in our quest for musical discharge, proclaiming to us 'Don't Ease Me In'. The energy of the swinging beat they used in this anthem kept the crowd contained, yet anticipatory. What show was it? Lisa Mackey was on stage so it must be from the 70's, unless they were playing their own set. Only time would tell, and we all listened intently. 'Don't Ease Me In' concluded with a short Jerry Garcia inspired solo by lead guitarist John Kadlecik that complimented the solos taken by Rob Barraco in between the opening verses.
When the slide of Rob Eaton's rhythm guitar signaled the beginning of the raunchy 'New New Minglewood Blues' it quickly became clear that either The Grateful Dead had been making a statement the night this show first premiered, or, tonight, DSO was making a statement of their own. Eaton tantalized the crowd offering "Tea right here in Burlington, where the little girls know what to do." I for one feel that Eaton bares an uncanny resemblance to Bob Weir circa 1987, not only in his ability to hit all of those highest of notes, but physically and in his mannerisms. I mean it's eerie.
All around me younger Deadheads were filling in, trying to connect in a physical way to a time long past. However, after a beautiful 'Row Jimmy', Lisa left the stage and Barraco broke into the Brent Mydland song 'Easy To Love You'. Quickly we all knew, tonight belonged to DSO. There would be no re-creation on the stage, unless there was some show that Donna played with Brent, mysteriously omitted from the latest edition of DeadBase. The younger fans were still going to be connected with creativity within songs they have heard thousands of different ways, but tonight that interpretation would not be scripted. During this rare Mydland classic, we also saw emotion on the face and within the playing of the bands bassist Kevin Rosen, who had seemed vacant until this point. Here, he was singing along with Barraco like all of the fans on the other side of the stage. Yet, isn't it this the commonality that brought us all to the venue that night, just on different paths? On a dime, the band quickly changed eras, opting for the full stage, produced sound of the 90's Grateful Dead when covering 'Cassidy'. The sound system, after having some early issues with Barraco's levels, was finally dialed in and the unseen member of the DSO team was shining right along his brothers and sister on the stage. Dan Healy, famed soundman from The Grateful Dead was in control of the soundboard and the conditions on stage echoed this genius' mastery of the original band's sound. When DSO wanted to be mixed like the raw band of the 60's, he did it. When they wanted to sound like the polished product I saw in the 90's, he was able to quickly change. My hats off to the soundman that can span 40 years with the turn of a dial.
The jam of 'Cassidy' was intentionally crowded with John Kadlecik doing a spot on re-conception of the midi-solo so many of us saw Jerry perform down the stretch. All the while, there was something distinctly unique, intonation within the sound that made the audience realize that Kadlecik has his own chops, no matter where his tone comes from.
The slow version of 'They Love Each Other' reminded me that, with The Dead as well as with DSO, the solos are only the icing. Without intensive detail and subtle support players, the solos fall flat. Within 'TLEO', that ability came to the forefront as Rob Eaton, who spends most of his time creating rhythmic support for the band, stepped to the forefront and took a solo of his own. The seamless segue between Eaton's building and Kadlecik's crashing back down, only to rebuild again, showed that the give and take between these players is astounding. Next the band launched into the blues classic from the earliest conception of The Grateful Dead, 'It Hurts Me Too', with Barraco taking the vocal duty. Quickly it was becoming apparent that the band was playing songs that meant something to them as fans. Songs that, although rarely heard from The Dead, were capable of carrying a set on the there own with their original minstrels. Yet, here they were being performed, one after another for our listening pleasure. It was as if we had all been invited to a live recreation of The Grateful Dead's deepest cuts. After a raucous 'Jack Straw', the previous statement was amended to include those lost tracks from The Legion of Mary days, as DSO gave us their take on a cover of 'After Midnight'. And, as if that wasn't enough to blow the roof off of the tightly packed room heading into set-break, they invited Jamie Mansfield, from Jazz Mandolin Project onto the stage for finger picking give and take with Kadlecik.
The second set of evening was more of the same. There was no debate that the show was entirely original. So now, the only question on everyone's mind was, what next? The unexpected operatic "Funiculi Funicula' signaled to the crowd that DSO was still going to reach deep into their bag of tricks for this appreciative audience. A slower 'Feel Like A Stranger' was followed by another set opener, 'Help On The Way' as if the band didn't really want to start the second stanza of he evening, for that would be an admittance of an eventual end. Perhaps they felt as if as long as they kept reopening the set, it would go on forever. Regardless of their motivation, the heavy bass tones carried "Help' into a very tight 'Slipknot' until it became intentionally unwound in a free space of improvisation for the entire group. Nonetheless, when it was time to hit the changes of this elbow in one of The Dead's most famous three-song combos, all of the players were up to the task But, as I said before, this night belonged to DSO and when you thought they would bring it home with the rock and roll of 'Franklin's Tower', they threw a curveball and dropped it down into a lower gear. It was 'St. Stephen', not Franklin who pulled us into 'The Eleven' and a 'Drums/ Space' that sounded as if it had been taken from the outtakes of a Herbie Hancock jam session when recording with The Headhunters.
This second set mimicked many of the characteristics of a normal Dead show, but one such similarity stood out from the rest. Although each of these songs had potential for the epic jam of the show, DSO allowed each song to take a natural course. The slow jams were just as crucial to the entirety as the show as any other part, if not simply to offset and help to truly appreciate the larger jams. Still, there was a comfort- the band felt no reason to press, making upbeat songs like 'The Wheel' that much more of a musical elixir to the slower songs of the set.
The night finished in a blur of covers. Dylan's 'Visions of Johanna' and 'Quinn The Eskimo' left the audience at their tipping point, only to be pushed into the abyss of the night with an encore of The Band's, 'The Weight'.
If there had been any pretentious doubt or ego defining my relationship with the music of Dark Star Orchestra, it faded away on my drive home that evening. As I listened to a recording of The Grateful Dead laid down in 1976, I found my mind wandering to how these new stewards of this music- this gift- would interpret this same set list. But my mind wandered further to realize that, as wardens of the music of The Grateful Dead, it is their right, more than anyone, save its originators, to determine the best way for it to be delivered. So, if you are as fortunate as me to see Dark Star Orchestra create their own set, enjoy. It is not history in motion, but it is art in flux.
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