This past Thursday, the illustrious Dark Star Orchestra did not disappoint fans at the Calvin Theatre.
In the seating section and the pit, the fans trickling in appeared to be surprisingly diverse for a Grateful Dead cover band. The pit was full of not only a great deal of older fans, but also a wider spectrum of the younger fans. Instead of the expected tie-dye and bandanas, a great deal of the college-age crowd was wearing street clothes, such as jeans and t-shirts, certainly not what would commonly be labeled as “hippie” clothes. This was rather curious since, as one could imagine, The Dark Star Orchestra has a reputation for drawing a crowd similar to that of the Grateful Dead.
Dark Star Orchestra strolled on stage at around 8:15 p.m., and got right to work making final adjustments and tuning up. They didn’t waste any time with an opening band, and didn’t say much before diving into their first set.
The groove of the two drummers together immediately laid down a foundation for the rest of the band. As the performance went on, they seemed to synch up even more, with tighter and longer jam sessions. Each song spilled further and further out into improvisation, only to recede back into a familiar chorus such as “Don’t murder me, oh I beg you, please don’t murder me,” from “Dire Wolf,” or, “Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be,” from “Tennessee Jed.”
The improvisation bubble finally appeared to pop as the jam in “New Minglewood Blues” erupted with some serious shredding from lead guitarist Jeff Mattson into a terrific climax by the entire band before they came in one last time to finish the song.
Then, just when it looked like the band couldn’t take it any higher, they burst into “The Music Never Stopped” and rode it out for what seemed like an eternity. They effortlessly switched the rhythm into three-four time and then back to four-four time without missing a beat. DSO raged harder and harder with every note until they reached the very end. After that, they left for a set break, which gave the crowd a chance to take a rest and recover from the powerful performance.
At this point, anyone would be sufficiently convinced of this band’s precision and skill in not only their art, but also in recreating an atmosphere comparable to that of the Grateful Dead themselves.
At around 9:30 p.m., Dark Star Orchestra returned for a second and final set and were met by the eager and energized audience. Sure enough, the band got right back to work building on each others’ playing and closing in on some terrific sounds.
They branched farther out with each song and blew the crowd away with their persistent groove. At times these jams would get a little off track or seem to float off course for a little too long, but the crowd never stopped dancing. DSO always rewarded their loyal fans with something even better than before.
Towards the end of the set, the band played “Dancing in the Street” for one of the longest jams of the night, which led into a duet from the two drummers, who kept a furious pace throughout the show.
To the dismay of the audience, DSO eventually had to bring the night to a close. Euphoric yet exhausted, fans sluggishly walked away from the Calvin, excited to have added another show to their growing list. DSO later announced they had played the Grateful Dead set from the Paramount Theater in Portland, Ore. on Oct. 1, 1977, exactly 33 years ago. In a sense, the audience came as close to experiencing the real Grateful Dead as anyone could possibly hope for.
David Kincaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.