Tribute band Dark Star Orchestra raises Grateful Dead for Stage AE show

Dark Star Orchestra
Dark Star Orchestra
Photo by Suzy Perler
| Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Few bands in rock history have had a more loyal and devoted audience than the Grateful Dead.

“Deadheads,” as they are called, know the band's studio albums inside out, and many own dozens — if not hundreds — of tapes of Grateful Dead concerts and have delved extensively into how certain songs in the Dead catalog changed live and evolved from era to era.

So, to aim to be the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band — as Dark Star Orchestra has done — is no easy task. The fans will demand an authentic experience and will know if a band fudges on a song or fails to capture the vibe of a certain era in the Dead's history.

Fans will get a chance to see Dark Star work its magic Aug. 8 at Stage AE, North Shore.

One thing keeps Dark Star Orchestra from feeling the pressure to live up to an elevated standard in re-creating the music and spirit of the Grateful Dead. “We are those people, too,” singer-guitarist Jeff Mattson (who plays the late Dead frontman Jerry Garcia) says. “So, those same qualities that the other Deadheads are looking for, we're looking for it in the music ourselves.”

That kind of knowledge and playing ability allows Dark Star to be more than just a garden-variety cover band.

Dark Star tries to conjure the free-wheeling, unpredictable, improvisational character of a Grateful Dead live show.

The band re-creates specific concerts by the Grateful Dead, playing the songs in sequence, trying to replicate the way the Dead sounded that night (right down to using instruments and equipment from that period). They also indulge in jams that are as unscripted as those the Dead would undertake in its legendary live shows.

Dark Star also does what the band calls elective sets, in which it puts together its own set list of Dead songs, mixing tunes from different periods and sometimes combining the ways the song was performed by the Dead at different points in the group's career.

Mattson enjoys both types of Dark Star shows, for different reasons. “There's something neat about doing a (re-creation) show and trying to get all of the details right as far as the arrangements from that period in which the show was originally performed and the instrumentation and the vibe and the tempos,” he says. “That kind of attention to detail for hardcore Deadheads, like ourselves, is fun. By the same token, doing the elective sets allows us to juxtapose songs together from different eras that had never really been played together before and try all different combinations. That gives us a certain freedom that's a lot of fun, too.”

The group was formed in 1997 in Chicago by John Kadlecik (who portrayed Garcia) and keyboardist Scott Larned (keyboards). A number of other musicians passed through the group in its early years, but several of the current members — Rob Eaton (as guitarist-singer Bob Weir), Dino English (drummer Bill Kreutzmann), Rob Koritz (drummer Mickey Hart) and Lisa Mackey (singer Donna Jean Godchaux) — have been in Dark Star for more than a decade.

Keyboardist Rob Barraco joined following the death of Larned in 2005, while Skip Vangelas (bassist Phil Lesh) joined last year. Mattson came aboard in 2009.

Mattson, though, was hardly a new face in Grateful Dead circles. He was a founding member of the Zen Tricksters, a group that recorded some original material, but was perhaps best known for its extensive repertoire of Dead songs.

Mattson was excited to cast his lot with Dark Star.

“Nobody's really done it better, and I say this going back to way before I was in Dark Star Orchestra,” he says. “Nobody's put together, that I've ever heard, a band that pays attention to the details and the production values on the level of Dark Star.

“As soon as I played with them, oh boy, it just felt so good. It felt so right.”

Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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