Never cared much for the Grateful Dead after their first album, the one with incredible cuts like “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” I’d catch them at the Fillmore East (NYC) only because I’d come to see the opener—one time it was Love, another time it was the Allman Brothers. They were just too hit-and-miss. At one gig they’d burn tight. At another, they’d be sloppy as hog jowls. Always a toss-up. So I was taking a chance going to the Varsity Theater on February 3 for the Dark Star Orchestra, the celebrated Dead tribute band. It panned out quite nicely.
A stark characteristic of the Dead was the community that followed the band, them hippie-dippie counterculture folk. Well, just as Dark Star Orchestra is faithful to a T in their sound, they also have a following that is dyed-in-the-wool counterculture. The huge crowd that packed the Varsity was like one big tribe. People who didn’t know each other were friendly toward one another. In fact, even the jostling that generally goes on at a concert was mellow. There was no getting bent out of shape just because somebody was having a nice time and accidentally shoved you or stepped on your foot. And if I ran into one person who wanted to know how spoken word ace David Daniels is doing, I ran into half a dozen: the Rasta Bard is very popular among Twin Cities stoners.
What the Dark Star Orchestra do is pick an actual set the Grateful Dead performed and recreate it. Practically, I’m told, note for note. They even do Dead-like jams, stretching a song out until, if your powers of perception are sufficiently altered, you could easily forget what song they started out playing. This night, as I meander through wall-to-wall writhing bodies the band is playing a dead-on recreation of “Not Fade Away,” that old Buddy-Holly-cum-Rolling-Stones hit Jerry Garcia and company managed to remake in their own fashion. The revelers are into it, God bless ‘em with their arrhythmic flouncing about. There is, corny as the saying is, a good vibe that just won’t quit.
Dark Star Orchestra have a wonderful three-disc album called Ithaca 30 Years Later. It’s gorgeously packaged and has literally hours of vintage-class San Francisco rock, including “Not Fade Away.” There is a 15-minute rendering of that haunting classic “Morning Dew,” and it is beautifully done. I don’t have much use for cover bands. The few I have seen just seem to mimic their heroes. Dark Star Orchestra pay fitting tribute. It is hard not to have a good time attending one of their shows or listening to them on the box.