Dark Star Orchestra at McDowell Mountain Music Festival

See also: A Look at the Creamy Radio Stage at McDowell Mountain Music Festival See also: Galactic's Robert Mercurio on Carnivale Electricos See also: Ozomatli, Galactic, and More at McDowell Mountain Music Festival

Dark Star Orchestra McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Compound Grill Saturday, April 14

A good part of the fun of a Dark Star Orchestra concert is trying to figure out what original Grateful Dead concert the band is attempting to emulate. That's what DSO does--pay tribute to the Dead by playing their music, but not in the way the average cover, or tribute, band does. DSO goes to great lengths to understand the phrasing, tone, intonation and direction of the Grateful Dead during the different eras of its existence. Even the instruments change out to represent a time period. I mean, they get it right--or pretty damn close--when they choose a concert to perform.

But what I only realized on the drive home was that given the 90-minute time constraint of their McDowell Mountain Musical Festival set, DSO couldn't replicate an entire Dead concert. There just wasn't time. However, blissfully unaware, I went into the concert determined to guess the show--or at the very least the particular tour--before the show was over.

Here's how it all unfolded:

The band arrives. Donna is on stage. Well, actually Lisa Mackey, who handles the roll of Dead singer Donna Godchaux. That immediately narrows down the time period to a mid- to late-70s show. No '80s "Day Job" excesses. The band begins a lengthy intro jam that turns into "Jack Straw." The band, fresh in from a Los Angeles gig, starts off tight--in the loosest sense--and blazes a welcome trail that gets the fairly full house swaying and shaking.

"Box of Rain," rumbles in next, appropriate given the clouds threatening all day to open up. The band is completely dialed in, right down to the original vocal nuances of Phil Lesh. This narrows the period further, as Lesh didn't perform the song often. Maybe 1972, 73, with a remote 1974 possibility.

"China Cat Sunflower," that rollicking, rolling jam with amazing guitar solos amid multiple canyons and plateaus, brings the guess down, maybe even to 1971. Barreling into "I Know You Rider" like a runaway freight, the familiar paring was now complete and well formed. The Dead often tossed these songs into the middle of the first set in the old days, but was Donna in the band then?

All around kids are tucking into tie-dye blankets as the sweater-sporting parents danced. Bubbles floated in the cold evening air among beach balls and glow sticks, and the party atmosphere was in high gear. Everyone was shaking about in some form.

Next up was the rarely played "Women Enough," by Loretta Lynn and sung by Mackey. This bluesy Janis Joplin-esque number kept the mystery set in early-1970s, but when? "Black Throated Wind" slowed the tempo a touch, but this infrequently performed song carried plenty of intensity and emotion through searing guitar licks from Jeff Mattson and powerful vocals from longtime guitarist and "Bob Weir" of DSO, Rob Eaton. Still thinking 1972 or 73.

But could this set have really happened? Doubt's beginning to creep in.

"Cumberland Blues." No, this set isn't real. Period. It can't be. It's just toooooooooo good that this combination of songs could coexist on one set list. DSO has been known on occasion to "make up" Dead concerts, playing the songs as they think the Dead would have played them at that time period had the show actually occurred. As this might have been the case on this evening, what this demonstrates is that the Chicago-based band has an immense talent for improvisation within the set realms of the particular number. DSO never copies the Dead exactly anyway, they don't listen to the show ahead of time, but rely on intuition and history to pull them through a song. And they do it well. Eyes closed, it may as well be the real thing.

When the Pig Pen-sung, bluesy "Easy Wind" floated off the stage, it was all over--any hopes this was an actual show. But no one guessing (or not guessing) could have been disappointed in the performance. Especially when considering that DSO has covered more than 1900 Dead shows, the band's got it down.

"Scarlet Begonias" was so crisp and deftly handled and I forgot I was even trying to figure if the show actually occurred.

A complete "Whether Report Suite," repeatedly building from a slow crawl to downhill rush, followed. Great. Excellent. Intense, but now I know it's definitely not real. The final hopes this really could have happened, gone. Who would be unhappy though, with so many smiling faces in the crowd.

Giving the dancers a rest was "Stella Blue," followed by a the rollicking, party-completing, set closing duo of "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" and "One More Saturday Night." Still abuzz, the encore carried all the subtle intensity of the original "Brokedown Palace," and as the song did at many actual Dead shows, let the crowd down easy to ramble off into the night.

This may not have been the real thing, for whatever that's worth anymore, but it didn't have to be. Hearing something this good, however, is the free bonus that comes with a Dark Star Orchestra experience.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra.

Personal bias: Every time I go I know there's a 12 1/2 percent chance DSO will play a Dead concert I was actually at.

The crowd: A party mix with plenty of old hippies, and young ones too.

Random notebook dump: They don't exactly play the Dead but play the Dead exactly as the Dead might have not exactly played something.

Overheard: In the crowd after the first song: "Do you think the Bobby (Weir) guy forgets the lyrics like the real Bobby does?"

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver