After 13 years - and quickly approaching its 2,000th live performance - the Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead tribute band, helps to keep the memory of one of America's most famous bands very much alive.
The Grateful Dead, rated by Rolling Stone magazine as No. 57 on its list of "100 Greatest Artists of all Time," formed in San Francisco in 1965 and created its own genre, mixing several musical styles. It was quickly and wildly accepted by throngs of adoring fans - Deadheads - who have proven to be some of the most dedicated music fans in history: Many Deadheads spent hours on the road, dropping everything, to follow The Grateful Dead to gigs all over the country.
The legacy of The Dead, as the band is affectionately known, has lived well past its split in 1995, and after the death of guitarist and vocalist, Jerry Garcia, the band's frontman. The Dark Star Orchestra aims to tap into that legacy and passion by offering live performances that are based on actual Grateful Dead performances.
The music The Grateful Dead played, the melodies, really tapped into "Americana," said Dark Star guitarist and vocalist Jeff Mattson in a recent phone interview. "The music reflects blues, country, jazz, blue grass, and of course, psychedelic. It's a mix of American music."
Dark Star Orchestra fashions its concerts using The Dead's actual set lists. Since the orchestra's first performance in Chicago in 1997, the band has toured across the United States to Japan and Europe. It performs Friday, at 8 p.m. at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton.
Dark Star's own audience, Mattson says, is generally a mix of old-time Grateful Dead fans, as well as people who aren't old enough to have experienced the band first-hand.
"There's people that followed the offshoots, and people who never got to see The Grateful Dead, and they can experience what they were like, since they didn't get to see the original, we're their band." The audience's enthusiasm contributes to the band's continued success, Mattson says. "We feed off of the audience," Mattson said. "It's a circular thing. We get the audience going and they feed it back to us and then we get excited."
Mattson, who calls himself the "new guy" in the band, has played the part of Jerry Garcia since 2010. He replaced John Kadlecik, the orchestra's first "Jerry Garcia" who went on to play with original Grateful Dead members, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, in their band, Further.
Mattson says he was a "hard-core" fan of The Grateful Dead growing up and saw his first show in 1973.
"I loved the music and Jerry Garcia was my biggest influence as a guitar player," he said. Although he mimics The Grateful Dead's style to an extent, Mattson says, he makes the music his own.
"I think that is true of every member of the band," Mattson said. "The thing about playing their music is that it has so much room for personal inspiration. It's not like playing in a band where you have to play the same notes every night. Every solo I do is different, there's purely improvised jamming that goes in that is unique to each song."
The seven-member band has changed players through the years. Only two of the original players remain: bass player, Kevin Rosen, who plays the part of Lesh, and Lisa Mackey, vocalist, who plays the part of Donna Godchaux. The other members are Rob Eaton, rhythm guitar and vocals, who plays Weir; Dino English, drums, who plays Mickey Hart; Rob Koritz, drums, who plays Bill Kreutzmann; and Rob Barraco, keyboardist, who represents all five keyboardists who performed over the years with The Grateful Dead.
Everyone in the band is a full-time musician, Mattson said. They have all studied The Grateful Dead's music, as well as music in general.
"There's high production values in the shows, great light show, sound engineering, it's all top notch." Mattson said. "Everyone takes it very seriously and we work on our music all the time."
The Dark Star Orchestra plays a different show each night; each set list is either a replication of one that The Grateful Dead played in its 30 touring years and close to 2500 shows, or a unique combination of its original songs. According to the band's website, www.darkstarorchestra.net, "The band adapts their stage positioning, vocal arrangements, specific musical equipment and instruments to fit the era of the show they are performing. Following each performance the band announces the date and venue of the original performance. Dark Star Orchestra could dip into any incarnation of The Dead at any of its shows, allowing fans to experience shows that happened long before they were born."
So even though the band has played in Northampton before, it is guaranteed to be a different show than the audience saw previously, Mattson said. Each show is a surprise for the audience.
"You're not going to see a note-for-note replication for everything but what you will see is real musicians playing real music, in real time but it will be based on the same parameters of The Grateful Dead," Mattson said.
The Dark Star Orchestra will perform this Friday 11/18 at 8 p.m. at the Calvin Theatre, 19 King St., Northampton. Tickets cost $27. They are available at Northampton Box Office, 76 Main St. Northampton, 586-8686, or online at IHEG.com.
By MARIAH SYLVAIN Gazette Contributing Writer
From the Daily Hampshire Gazette (Subscription Required)