The jam band enthusiasts—“aged Deadheads”—and hipsters alike, all made their way out from the depths of the Colorado Front Range for a night of Grateful Dead tribute and homage. Dark Star Orchestra made the Dead fans of Denver “Get Up, Get Off, Get Out of the Door,” to suit up for an original setlist and production at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on July 5th, 2021.
Dark Star Orchestra is enthusiastically recognized for their twenty years of formulated experience curating live Grateful Dead experiences. Their shows are built around the Dead's extensive catalog and the talent of these seven fine musicians. Honoring both the band and the fans, Dark Star Orchestra's members seek out the unique style and sound of each era, while simultaneously offering their own informed improvisations.
A sense of familiarity filled the air. If positioned from the top of the amphitheatre, looking out in the distance, you could see the moon beginning to softly blank the city in a red glaze. From the top of the site, the screens on either side of the stage showcased the many multi-aged fans draped in tie-dye attire in the front row. Remembrance filled the air, and music began for the night.
Rob Barraco, keyboardist and dedicated Phil Lesh Band member, led the way throughout most of this Wednesday night, as staccato keys and a wildly melodic groove induced the crowd into “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.” The energy was high right off the bat, synced with the surging winds throughout the rocks.
At the chorus, thousands of hands raised to the sky as the crowd echoed the lyrics, ``I wish I was a headlight… on a northbound train!”
You could feel each of the crowd members paying gratitude to a lost friend or family member. Three heavy-layered guitar strums closed out the jam with a collective cheering from the Amphitheatre. Immediately following, lead guitarist Rob Eaton rang out on vocals ``It's so good to be home.”
Next up was “Black Throated Wind” where a spotlight laid over Jeff Mattson, vocalist and guitarist, channeling a blazing synergy from the crowd. Then the band shouted out that the next [song] was a “positive one,” and they transitioned into “Here Comes Sunshine.”
DSO then welcomed former contributing guitarist of twelve years, John Kadlecik, onto the stage for a lengthy “Cumberland Blues.” A consistent harmony was ignited between Kadlecik and the rest of the band, making it a beautiful guest appearance. Last night was Kadlecik’s first guest spot with Dark Star Orchestra since his departure from the band twelve years ago.
Soft, melodic guitar riffs; highlighted by jumpy, staccato keys; led entranced fans into the passionate and desirous “Box of Rain.” The crowd was fully engaged, and a steamy aroma ensued.
Vocalist Lisa Mackey ripped sound resonance into the amphitheatre with a cover of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man).” Her raging vocals serenaded fans with this powerful, magnetic feministic lullaby; and from this moment; an instantaneous, symbiotic relationship was formed with the crowd. Simultaneously, lights and visuals appeared onstage for the first time (for those not psychedelically-induced), as the sun officially dropped, and we eased into the night.
“Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” lyrics encompassed the amphitheatre as the classic jam reached its peak. As the crowd swayed in unison, it then transitioned into a slower groove, highlighting each individual band member’s talent before they exited for set break. The keen and familiar commonplaceness of the Grateful Dead experience was lingering in the air as the crowd awaited more.
Purple and blue lights obliquely lit up the stage as a spotlight highlighted the vocalists. The crowd was eased back into a beautifully stimulated “Morning Dew,” leaving them in awe at the synchronization of the drummers (Dino English & Rob Koritz) centered to the back of the stage. During the ravish song, white lights highlighted the whole crowd, while deep, intentional and elongated music notes filled the air. Mattson shredded a gnarly guitar solo before the sounds neared a silent stop—for a breath—then detonated into a thunderous applause, which could only be translated into accreditation for his intention behind each note.
The stage resembled a portal, and the symphonies ranged from low frequencies to high vibrational pitches that attuned to a euphony, still shaken and rattled from the savviness of the percussion. Rob Eaton took over the microphone to announce, “[Playing here] is the last thing I ever thought I would do, “and thanked the fans for their appreciation and support.
“St. Stephen” addressed the crowd with folksy layers of sound with light guitar accents and continued to move the sonic waves throughout the night. A legendary harmonica takeover occurred on-stage while the electronics of the strings compatible paralleled each other to reach harmony. Lisa Mackey contributed her talents on the harp during the duration of the captivating tune.
The alternating musical pace and soft, lasting notes enraptured attendees into a continuous boogie. A deep and savvy “Drums & Space,” accompanied by didgeridoo companionship accents, led the attendees in the amphitheatre to sit down and take in each and every essence of the journey.
Ripping out of “Drums & Space,'' an explosion of energy shot attendees back to their feet to collectively sing the lyrics “Coming, Coming, Coming Around.” supported by accompanying guitar shreds for a wild, extended jam of “The Other One.”
Layering and capitalizing beautifully on each other’s musical abilities, DSO then transitioned into a coveted “Alligator,” full of passion and animation. The crowd’s energy, the music and the lights allowed for a full trifecta powerhouse feeling to be established before exiting the band excited the stage after their closing song.
The final song of the night was “Viola Lee Blues,” which was projected and played with a funky, jazz-based, rock n roll flair. All the musicians of Dark Star Orchestra were feeding off of each other, being complementary, yet comprehensive in their delightful efforts. Funky basslines that contributed to the finale left the crowd feeling fulfilled, high-energy and jazzed up.
Dark Star Orchestra truly offers much more than the sound of the Grateful Dead, they truly encapsulate the energy and the experience. It's about the feeling that grabs listeners and takes over.