Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra has now played more shows than the Grateful Dead themselves
Last month, as the orbits of the Earth, Sun and Moon were aligning themselves for a total lunar eclipse, the Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra prepared for an eclipse of its own.
Dark Star Orchestra was in San Francisco, the hometown of their heroes, the Dead, for a three-night stand at the Great American Music Hall. The last show of the run would mark Dark Star’s 2,319th show – thereby eclipsing the total number of shows the Grateful Dead played in their historic 30-year career.
The Grateful Dead, who began their career in the mid-’60s, introduced a new kind of music to the world by fusing folk, blues and rock and roll – along with occasional massive doses of LSD – to create mind-bending improvisational jams. The Dead went on to become one of the most influential bands in music history, laying the groundwork that become a model for future jam bands – two set shows, never repeating setlists and long free-flowing jams. In 1995, the death of guitarist and leader, Jerry Garcia, and the subsequent disbanding of the group, left a void in the community of Grateful Dead fans.
Dark Star Orchestra formed in 1997 with the idea of recreating something that was by definition impossible to recreate – entire Grateful Dead concerts. They carefully learned the nuances of every era of the Dead’s catalogue and even acquired some of their old equipment. But Dark Star Orchestra doesn’t simply seek to replicate the Grateful Dead’s music; they play the music in the spirit of the Dead – creating something new every night using the songs as launch pads to explore the infinite possibilities of music.
Jeff Mattson – Dark Star lead guitarist and the man who has played more Garcia licks than the legend himself – says, “Even if you could take the time to learn a Grateful Dead concert note-for-note, what would be the point? It’s about being in the moment and using the songs as a vehicle to improvise.”
Channeling Jerry isn’t really the goal. “I’m playing through a filter of the style of Jerry Garcia,” Mattson says. “I try to get the essence of what the Grateful Dead experience is about and play straight from the heart. If I’m thinking of what Jerry played, then I’m not in the moment.”
All the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have joined Dark Star Orchestra on stage at least once during the band’s career, and most have played multiple times. Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir joined the group the first night of their run at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and spontaneously led them through five songs.
“That’s the highlight of my career,” Mattson says. “To get to play with the people that created this music, it’s surreal. You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Man, this sounds so right, right now.’ Of course it does because you’re playing with the guys.”
Eclipsing the total number of Grateful Dead shows was bound to happen at some point. The Grateful Dead typically played about 70-80 shows a year. Last year, Dark Star Orchestra played 131. But for Mattson, it was never about the number of shows. “If we could play one show as good as some of the best Grateful Dead concerts,” he says, “that would be better than some number of shows.”