Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review - Dark Star Orchestra at The National, Richmond, VA 12/28/14 (performing 7/14/76)

This past Sunday, December 28 was my first time seeing the Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra since guitarist Jeff Matson came on board. I had seen DSO several times with John Kadlecik in the Jerry Garcia slot until he was called up to the majors to join Furthur in 2009. Part of my hesitation in seeing DSO since then was because I wasn't sure if they would be as good with the new guy as they were with JK. I'm happy to report that there has been no drop off in quality with Jeff Matson at the helm.  It's different, but in a good way.
Dark Star Orchestra
Kadlecik’s vocals and tone are spot-on (close your eyes and it's Jerry), but I found Matson to be an edgier, more adventurous guitarist. Matson also proved to be a confident leader, taking the band down creative, and sometimes dark, paths of improv that went to places beyond just the duties of replicating a setlist and arrangements. Rather than trying to mimic Garcia, Matson's vocal delivery differed in ways that actually worked to his advantage, giving the music an in-the-moment feel.

I’m definitely not as up on my Grateful Dead history and minutia as I used to be - haven't studied it in years - although I still think I am way more aware of song rotations and the sounds of different years than the Deadheads who actually lived it in the 70’s and 80’s!  For example, by looking at the stage setup before they started one could assume it was a post-1974 Keith and Donna era show based on the two drum sets and the keyboards positioned on the left.

The opener Promised Land was sans “Donna” (Lisa Mackey) but when she materialized for the 2nd song Sugaree this confirmed that it was either 70’s show or an original setlist. Matson made a particularly good impression on this Sugaree, building it to an early peak, then letting it settle down and mellow out the last time through.

Minglewood came next. No clues there except for maybe the absence of the “T for Texas, T for Timbuktu” verse(?). The placement of Scarlet Begonias as the 4th song of the 1st set seemed odd to me and the way they were playing it indicated that this was a pre-1977 version that wasn’t going to go into Fire on the Mountain. This made it fairly clear that they were doing a 1976 show. (I usually try and guess the year of a DSO concert by the third song of the 1st set.)

The only thing that sort of threw me off was the absence of Blues for Allah songs. It being 1976 you expect things like Help / Slip / Franklin’s, The Music Never Stopped or Crazy Fingers, or maybe even It Must Have Been the Roses. The whole first set could have been a 1974 set, especially with the sparkling Playin' / Drums / Wheel / Playin’ end to the set, but the presence of two drummers meant that it couldn’t have been 1974 unless there were some ’74 shows with Mickey Hart that I was forgetting.
Jeff Matson - photo by Suzy Barocas Perler
The whole 2nd set was a highlight. The ballads were on point and there were some monstrous jams during Let It Grow into Eyes of the World, and then again leading from Wharf Rat into The Other One. They finally played something from Blues for Allah as the last song of the 2nd set - The Music Never Stopped. We left as soon as the show encore of Johnny B. Goode started, so we missed the announcement of the performance date and the bonus “filler” encore of The Weight, but a quick glance at 1976 setlists when I got home confirmed that we had just seen them do 7/14/76 at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, CA.

I would definitely go see DSO again with Jeff Matson as Jerry. He could really tear into '73 or '74, or even something earlier.

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