Bringing out the ‘Dead’

By John Shaver

(Justin Gagnon/Collegian)
Northampton was alive Friday night as renowned cover band Dark Star Orchestra brought the Grateful Dead back to western Massachusetts. With the Donna Jean Godchaux Band and Jeff Mattson as their opener, the night was filled with sounds of music flashbacks.

Donna Jean appeared on stage and played a short set, its small backing band jostling to grab the attention of the few people who had begun to file into the club. The majority of those in the venue were at the bars or trying to get through the mob to the will call table. Donna’s band began the set with a Loretta Lynn cover, but quickly seemed to lose their bearings. Jeff Mattson, the lead guitarist for Godchaux’s band and Dark Star Orchestra, was very quiet throughout and ended his five-song set with “Mighty High” while Lisa Mackey from Dark Star Orchestra followed suit with backing vocals. A few people broke out in scattered applause for her performance but by and large, most seemed happy that she was done.

Dark Star Orchestra then made their debut, the lights dimmed and a cloud rose in the air, as the crowd made their way to their seats. Opening with “Dark Star,” the Grateful Dead cover band followed with “St. Stephen” and unlike the previous band, the fans seemed to love it. As they got through the classic Dead tune, the energy of the Calvin Theatre rose and kept rising until they finished the first set. An unexpected song choice came mid-way through the first set with the Jerry Garcia tune “I’ll Be With Thee.” The excitement hit a crescendo, a peak of magnificent highs and sensational vibes before closing it with “Mighty Quinn,” a quaint ditty that did not fail to rouse the spirits of a crowd already swept up in excellent cheer.

The bar and the nearby seating area buzzed with energy after the set. The morale of the general population in the Calvin Theatre seemed much better after Dark Star’s first set than after the Donna Jean Godchaux Band’s set. After a decently long set break, they came back firing in the second set with the first two tracks off of the album “Blues for Allah” from 1975. They started out with the funky “Help On the Way” with Jeff Mattson delivering his best performance of the entire show. Mattson’s counterpart from the opening band, Donna Jean, came out to give some real authentic Grateful Dead vocals. They went into the jam “Slipknot” and then erupted into the Dead classic, “Franklin’s Tower.” Godchaux came back out for this tune, giving Dark Star Orchestra five vocalists for the choruses as well as the crowd who was going crazier than any other part of the show.

Dark Star Orchestra went into the tune “Cryptical Envelopment,” and the Calvin started to calm down a little bit. Dino English and Rob Koritz went into an extended drumming and synthesizer jam, which came to an end as the rest of the band rejoined them and went into the “Spanish Jam.” After a significant length of time of instrumental songs, they went into “The Other One” and finished “Cryptical Envelopment.”

They started to tease the crowd with a possible “Brokedown Palace,” but then went into the slow and steady “Sing Me Back Home.” The band then played “One More Saturday Night.” This bluesy tune made the Calvin go absolutely crazy.

They left the stage and thanked Northampton for their hospitality. Many lighters went up in the air all across the Calvin as the house lights stayed low and the stage was lit in blue. Dark Star Orchestra came out again for one last song. They ended their show with “Let it Rock” by Chuck Berry, a song the Jerry Garcia Band used to play once in a while. This old-time rock ‘n’ roll song got the crowd going for one last time until they said goodbye for the night.

The buzz after the show was not only for the Dark Star Orchestra’s performance, but also that the band announced their tour for early 2010, including a gig at the University of Massachusetts’ Mullins Center on Saturday, Feb. 19., which will include members of the original Grateful Dead line up, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.

The night was filled with classic Dead tunes and good times had by all. UMass student Nikki Escalada said that this show was much more entertaining than the night after in Lowell, Mass. “The night was awesome,” Escalada said. “People raged to the set harder in Northampton than in Lowell. The whole night was great.”

John Shaver can be reached at [email protected]