Dark Star Orchestra at First Avenue, 02/01/12

Dark Star Orchestra
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Although First Avenue can't quite stack up with an outdoor festival setting, last night's Dark Star Orchestra show in the mainroom was still plenty good. The band has made a name for itself by traveling the world and playing entire Grateful Dead concert sets just as the Dead played them decades ago. Last night, DSO recreated a Dead set from April 19, 1984 at the Civic Center in Philadelphia. By the mid-'80s, this output consisted of an American roots-style blend of blues, country, reggae, and, of course, good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll.

Following in the tried-and-true "jam band" tradition that the Grateful Dead pioneered, DSO's set featured cycles of tension building and release. The releases are what bring people to shows of this sort -- hundreds of people singing/yelling "at least I'm enjoying the ride!" during "Hell in a Bucket," for instance -- but the tension-building stretches sometimes sound like directionless fiddling. If nothing else, the lengthy jam sections are a good time to run and grab a drink. And, of course, it's hard to blame DSO for the occasionally too-long jams -- after all, they're just "continuing the Grateful Dead concert experience."

This experience carries over visually and sonically with the group's lead guitarist and vocalist Jeff Mattson, who looks and sounds amazingly like Jerry Garcia. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Rob Eaton doesn't really look like Bob Weir, but the important thing is that he pulls off the sound resemblance. DSO even follows the Grateful Dead in featuring two set drummers.

Unlike hard-hitting modern-day jam bands like Umphrey's McGee, DSO (and, by extension, the Grateful Dead) are all about subtle flavors in their music. There were sections with the stoned-out feel of reggae, the twang of old-school country, and runs at Chuck Berry-esque rock n' roll. It's not music that gets you pumping your fist, but instead gets you to close your eyes, sway side-to-side, and bask.

Ultimately, these good vibes are what the Grateful Dead concert experience is all about. The improvisational sections spurred by the collective energy of the crowd featured bits and pieces of all that American music has to offer. Jerry Garcia may be dead and gone, but his pioneering live music experience lives on through Dark Star Orchestra, and those sun-drenched California sounds buzzed through our ears as we emerged afterwards into the foggy Minneapolis night.

Critic's notebook   

Personal Bias: I first saw Dark Star Orchestra at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. It was a glorious, sun-drenched October afternoon. Under the eucalyptus trees in Golden Gate Park, thousands of revelers hung on every note and every lyric. On that day, it didn't matter if DSO was a tribute band or not -- both visually and audibly, it seemed as though we were experiencing the Grateful Dead at the height of their powers. I left California a DSO fan for life.

The Crowd: As you might expect, DSO's demographics are a bit older than your typical mainroom show. As you also might expect, the sweet smell of ganja wafted throughout the venue the entire night. DSO shows are definitely live-and-let-live affairs. A business-casual clad gentleman named Curtis took particular pleasure in telling me that while he doesn't give a shit what others do, his professional responsibilities preclude him from partaking in an activity he very much enjoyed in his 20s. After my friend and I relocated to a spot closer to the stage for the second set, another business-clad gentleman asserted that he was overheating, then asked me "if I had some acid or something" with a look in his eyes that said, 'screw it, I'm partying tonight like it's 1980 all over again.' Some came as they are, others came as they were.

Setlist highlights:

Dark Star Orchestra played two sets, each about an hour and a half long. As mentioned earlier, the set was taken from a Grateful Dead show at the Civic Center in Philadelphia on April 19, 1984. Highlights included:
-- Hell in a Bucket
-- Bird Song
-- That's All Right Mama
-- Don't Ease Me In
-- I Know You Rider
-- Estimated Prophet
-- Terrapin Station
-- Wharf Rat
-- It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
-- Sugar Magnolia

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