Past the effulgent cherry red and puke green neon sign delineating Pike Place Market, through a perennial shower of raindrops and mist, and under a vertical column of winking, blinking marquee lights is Seattle's historic Showbox at the Market. Founded way back in '39 and still going strong, the Showbox ballroom has draw many of the greatest musicians and performers of all time. Name any artist or band, and they've probably graced the Showbox with their tunes and presence. Duke Ellington? Check. Muddy Waters? That's right folks. How about The Ramones? You betcha! And yes, even Lady Gaga paid the Showbox a visit a few years back. So on this very special hippie holy day, it's perfectly fitting that the Dark Star Orchestra, arguably the greatest of the Grateful Dead tribute grounds, chose the Showbox as its temple.
Hazy violet and burgundy lights wrapped the Showbox ballroom in a warming bubble, as 20-foot tie-dye panels set the backdrop for the world’s eminent Dead tributaries, the Dark Star Orchestra. Touring nationwide for decades, Chicago-based DSO recreates original, song-for-song concerts from the Grateful Dead’s 30-year history. Last Saturday night though, the Seattle audience was treated to DSO show #2193, a rare original set.
As hirsute hippies draped in soft flannel and coarse earth toned hemp drifted into the venue early to stake out some prime real estate, an Age of Aquarius vibe was clearly in the air. The band’s determined commitment to channeling Jerry, Phil, Bob, Billy and Mickey seemed to be a success already, as overheard conversations in the crowd included one slightly dazed older gentleman asking another he could “spare a smile.” On the other end of the spectrum, a cocksure Deadhead propositioning his blonde neighbor bellowed: “I bet you’re a damn fine dancer, because it takes one to know one.” Was that a compliment or just an excuse for the guy to toot his own horn? It sounded benevolent, so who cares!
Chandeliers dimmed as the crowd erupted for front man and lead guitarist Jeff Mattson. A founding member of Long Island jam band the Zen Tricksters, Mattson joined DSO after their longtime lead guitarist and spiritual anchor John Kadlecik was called on to play alongside two veteran rockers that also happen know the Grateful Dead catalog pretty darn well. Maybe you've heard of them, one's named Bob Weir and the other is Phil Lesh. Now a few years on the job, Mattson deftly mimics Jerry’s vocal intonations, guitar flourishes, and even that subtly nonchalant, unabashedly mellow presence on stage as well as the erstwhile Kadlecik ever did.
Leading off with a molten cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” from Blonde and Blonde, a jaunty build thrust the audience into a delighted fit of slides and waves. Twirling alongside each other and joining hands as they caught a groove, fans young and old tossed back their hair and shuffled to the tight music.
Through clouds of pungent smoke, the stage lights brought out the deep oranges and yellows of the tie-dye backdrop. At the same time, Showbox security tried in vain to pinpoint the source of the dank olfactory sensation, but the buzzing audience proved far too difficult a sea to part. Can I get a “power to the people”? Amen! One: Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35 > Bertha > Good Lovin' ; Candyman ; Passenger ; Blow Away ; Jack-A-Roe : It's All Over Now ; Sittin' On Top Of The World ; Cassidy > The Golden Road (To Unlimited DevotTwo: Feel Like A Stranger ; Foolish Heart > Man Smart (Woman Smarter) ; Dark Star > drums > space > *Terrapin Station > The Other One > Morning Dew
Next on tap was the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha,” complete with improvisational jams as the glue between verses. The smiling flower kid cutting loose to my left took this opportunity to whisper in my ear: “That’s amazing! Gosh! I see a new color!” Was he profoundly digging the beats or just turning a figure of speech? My usual eloquence betrayed me and I simply replied, “Groovy!” As the band belted, “That's why if you please, I am on my bendin knees / Bertha don't you come around here anymore,” the audience hummed along in a communal display of bluesy feigned dissatisfaction.
After the first set closed out with fan favorite “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”, the crowd roared and cheered before rushing outside for some fresh air, cigarettes, and street food munchies. Revamped for the second set, Dark Star Orchestra dug up Hunter/Garcia’s “Foolish Heart,” followed closely by feminist declaration “Men Smart, Women Smarter.”
When the time came, the crowd unsurprisingly begged and pleaded for an encore. Echoes of “come back” and “return to us” filled the Showbox as the Dark Star Orchestra reclaimed the stage. Turning to The Band’s “The Weight,” ticketholders were lulled into a shapeless, timeless world where the devil walks through down in midday and men have to jostle with crazy jesters just to find a place to rest their weary heads. With a hint of self-sacrifice and lure of martyrdom, everyone in the ballroom blasted out: “And ya put the load right on meeeeee!” Following an evening of vigorous, ebullient dancing, fans were surly looking forward to taking a “load off” and slipping into a restful sleep after Dark Star Orchestra shuffled off the stage well past midnight.