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October 19, 2017

Raising the Dead: Dark Star Orchestra to play the Calvin

The spirit of the Dead will rise tonight at the Calvin Theatre. The world-renowned Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) will bring the Grateful Dead back to Northampton tonight. They have been touring with the legendary Donna Jean Godchaux, who was in the Grateful Dead during the 1970s.

DSO has worked with Grateful Dead set lists over the past 30 years to recreate former concerts and attempt to bring back the spirit of the Dead with every show. Their note-for-note precision in duplicating past shows has gotten them heavy media attention and opportunities that most bands would only dream of.

This DSO show will be different than any other. It follows in the wake of singer and founding member John Kadlecik’s resignation from the band on Monday. Kadlecik has been doing work with former Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, as well as with Joe Russo from the Benevento/Russo Duo and two members of RatDog on a project called “Further.”

The faux-Dead group is nearing the end of its winter tour with Donna Jean, which started in late September. The group’s final tour will take place on Dec. 5 in Buffalo, N.Y. Many DSO fans are not sure how the band will carry on without Kadlecik, and are skeptical about anyone else trying to fill the great Jerry Garcia’s shoes. But Jeff Mattson is going to try.

Mattson is currently the guitarist of the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson and has played with Donna Jean and his band, the Zen Tricksters. He also toured with Phil Lesh and Friends, playing originals as well as covers of Grateful Dead songs. Dino English, one of the drummers of DSO, only speaks of Jeff Mattson in high regard. “Jeff is a phenomenal guitar player,” English said previously in an interview. “He never runs out of things to say musically.” His experience touring with Donna Jean and other members of the Dead gives him a great advantage over any other guitar player. There is a certain level of confidence that Dark Star needs to have in a guitar player for them to share the stage with them, and Mattson has it. “We were not afraid to put Jeff out there for everybody to see,” English said. “Our goal is to get the best person out there for this position. Someone who understands the music, understands what we’re doing and presents the music with the best clarity.”

His addition to the already talented lineup is going to be very special and maybe short-lived. He was planning on filling in for John Kadlecik for a few concerts while Kadlecik was playing with Further, but it looks like his journey with DSO will be more extended than anyone initially thought. DSO has released information that Mattson will be filling in indefinitely after Dec. 5 until at least the end of their winter tour that starts in February 2010. No talks about the future have sprung up yet, but time will tell.

“We don’t make any quick decisions like that,” English said. “We like to play with people for a while and not mak[e] assumptions.”

This talented group of musicians doesn’t just recreate the music of the Dead, but the experience. Their flawless renditions of past shows give the look, feel and experience of a real Grateful Dead show to those who were not alive in May of 1977, or just don’t remember. DSO captures what it meant to be at the Watkins Jam or at Barton Hall and still keep the tradition of never playing the same song twice.

Last time the group came to the Calvin Theatre, they played a set from 1990 which included some of the Dead’s well-known songs, such as “Box of Rain” and “Greatest Story Ever Told,” as well as some cover tunes like “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan and “The Weight” by The Band. This show had a killer set list, but don’t expect the same tonight. The band looks at the history of what they have played at that venue in the past and chooses something different.

“When we go to a venue,” English said, “we just try to make it different from the last time we were there.”

DSO and the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson will perform at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets are $27.

John Shaver can be reached at jshaver@student.umass.edu.

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