7/14/04 Concert Review
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Dark Star Orchestra - The premier Grateful Dead cover band

Dark Star Orchestra - The premier Grateful Dead cover band

Dark Star Orchestra Concert Review
The premier Grateful Dead tribute band

DSO brings Dead back to life in era-specific shows Chicago's Dark Star Orchestra exists in a strange, barely discernible vortex between top-drawer imitation and legitimate innovation, toeing the line at both ends but belonging to neither. 

On paper, they are the best Grateful Dead cover band there is, reproducing not just songs and sequences but paying fanatical attention to such minutiae as microphone placement and era-specific arrangements. It's all an inspired effort to recreate entire individual shows from the Dead's history, as they did last night for a packed crowd of both old and new school 'Heads at The Roxy. 

The band adheres to DeadBase (www.deadbase.com), a painstakingly annotated backlog of every set list and show detail from each of the Dead's 2,500-plus shows over 30 years - sacred scripture in the annals of Jam Nation. 

Not only are they superb musicians who know the Dead catalog front to back, but they've also got a firm grasp on the many styles and countless nuanced improvisational tools unique to the Dead playbook. Granted, it's a tendentious concept: appreciating DSO requires some level of appreciation or at least interest in the Dead's music, which is complex and interesting enough to warrant revision, reinterpretation and reinvention. But the transcendence above the ranks of normal tribute bands is in the intangibles: in more than six years as a touring unit, DSO has advanced beyond an expository gimmick and into the realm of something more original - instead of pure nostalgia, they create something wonderfully sentimental and restorative, like an interactive, touring Smithsonian exhibit on the Grateful Dead. 

Last night's show was from Dec. 26, 1982, in Oakland, Calif., and in its original form came from the beginning of what would mark the last of the Dead's creative periods. The band had settled into comfortable groove and roots rock coming out of the psychedelia and funk-laden creative peaks of the 1970s, and would mint some of their most pop-friendly songs in the mid-1980s, among them megahit "Touch of Grey." 

Lead guitarist/vocalist John Kadlecik is spot-on as Jerry Garcia, so much so that he was recently invited by keyboardist Melvin Seals to sit in with the reunited Jerry Garcia Band. Rhythm guitarist and singer Rob Eaton bears an especially uncanny resemblance to Bob Weir, everything from slightly spaced-out looks to vocal timbre and Weir's habit of emphatically tipping his head to an angle when singing an emotive phrase - his lilts on "Estimated Prophet," followed by the bouncy, celebratory "Eyes of the World" produced legitimate chills. The two together achieve superlative vocal and guitar confluence atop bassist Kevin Rosen, who ably nails Phil Lesh's bizarrely innovative anchor pieces and sinewy foundation lines, and keyboardist Scott Larned, who has the group's toughest job in that on any given night he could "be" one of five players and must adapt to the corresponding style and equipment. 

Then there are the two drummers, Dino English and Rob Koritz, who comfortably lock into that familiar time-keeping-with-space-beats conversation so familiar to the Dead's Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann - they pulled off the second set freeform "Drums" segment of the show with aplomb. 

All added up to why DSO has set the bar for the long-existing but rarely exciting and almost never inspiring world of rock tribute bands. 

Dark Star Orchestra Last night at the Roxy, Boston. 

Dark Star Orchestra - The premier Grateful Dead cover band


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