Few bands in rock history have had a more loyal and devoted audience than the Grateful Dead. The Deadheads, as they are famously called, know the band’s studio albums inside out, and many own dozens — if not hundreds — of tapes of Grateful Dead concerts and have delved extensively into how certain songs in the Dead catalog changed live and evolved from era to era, tour to tour and even show to show.
So to aim to be the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band — as Dark Star Orchestra has done — is no easy task. Fans will demand an authentic experience and will know if a band fudges on a Grateful Dead song or doesn’t capture the vibe of a certain era in the Dead’s history.
But one thing keeps Dark Star Orchestra from feeling the pressure to live up to an elevated standard in re-creating the music and spirit of the Grateful Dead.
“Well, you know, we are those people, too,” singer and guitarist Jeff Mattson (who plays the role of former Dead frontman Jerry Garcia) said in a mid-March phone interview. “We are all those crazy hardcore Deadheads. So those same qualities that the other Deadheads are looking for, we’re looking for it in the music ourselves. I think that saves us. I think if we were someone you hired off of the street and said, ‘Oh, can you learn to play this Jerry Garcia guitar part?’ (that would be one thing). But no, I love the way Garcia plays, and I know all of the nuances, not all of it, but I’ve studied him for 40-some years and listened to their music. Like I say, we are those invested people.”
That kind of knowledge and playing ability allows Dark Star Orchestra to be more than just a garden-variety Grateful Dead cover band. Beyond playing the songs well, Dark Star Orchestra seeks to conjure the free-wheeling, unpredictable, improvisational character of a Grateful Dead show.
The group does this, first of all, by not merely performing Grateful Dead songs but by re-creating actual concerts from the band, playing the songs in sequence, trying to replicate the way the Dead played and sounded during that particular era (right down to using instruments and equipment from that period) and indulging in jams that are as unscripted as those the Grateful Dead would undertake in its legendary concerts.
In addition to the re-creation shows, Dark Star Orchestra also does what the band calls elective sets, in which it puts together its own set list of Grateful Dead songs, pulling from different eras throughout the Dead’s three-decade history. These shows allow Dark Star Orchestra to perform songs during an evening that were never part of the same Grateful Dead concert or even take a song and mix together the different ways the song was performed by the Dead at different points in the group’s career.
Mattson enjoys both types of Dark Star Orchestra shows for different reasons.
“There’s something neat about doing a (re-creation) show and trying to get all of the details right as far as the arrangements from that period in which the show was originally performed and the instrumentation and the vibe and the tempos,” he said. “And the lyrics are (sometimes) different; some of the keys are different. That kind of attention to detail for hardcore Deadheads like ourselves is fun. By the same token, doing the elective sets allows us to juxtapose songs together from different eras that had never really been played together before and try all different combinations. That gives us a certain freedom that’s a lot of fun, too.”
The authenticity and attention to detail that Dark Star Orchestra brings to the music of the Grateful Dead has helped make it arguably the most popular and respected Grateful Dead-based act going.
The group was formed in 1997 in Chicago by John Kadlecik (who portrayed Garcia) and keyboardist Scott Larned. A large number of other musicians passed through the group in its early years, but several of the current members — Rob Eaton (as guitarist and singer Bob Weir), Dino English (as drummer Bill Kreutzmann), Rob Koritz (as drummer Mickey Hart) and Lisa Mackey (as singer Donna Jean Godchaux) — have been in Dark Star Orchestra for more than a decade.
Keyboardist Rob Barraco joined following the death of Larned in 2005, while Skip Vangelas (as bassist Phil Lesh) joined last year. Mattson replaced Kadlecik in 2009 after he joined Furthur, which features Grateful Dead alumni Weir and Lesh.
Mattson, though, was hardly a new face in Grateful Dead circles. He was a founding member of the Zen Tricksters, a group that recorded some original material but was perhaps best known for its extensive repertoire of Grateful Dead songs.
The Zen Tricksters began touring with Godchaux in 2006, and in 2009 Mattson became a central member of the reconfigured Donna Jean Godchaux Band.
Even though it meant putting the Zen Tricksters on hiatus and being unable to tour extensively with Godchaux, Mattson was excited to cast his lot with Dark Star Orchestra when the Garcia slot opened in 2009.
“Nobody’s really done it better, and I say this going back to way before I was in Dark Star Orchestra,” he said. “Nobody’s put together, that I’ve ever heard, a band that pays attention to the details and the production values on the level of Dark Star.
“As soon as I played with them, oh boy, it just felt so good. It felt so right. You have everybody playing the right parts, and everything’s there, two drummers, the equipment is right. I had to catch up with that. And they have such a great organization. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Mattson did find time, however, to record a new album with the Donna Jean Godchaux Band, “Back Around.”
“We are real proud of that album,” Mattson said. “I think what we’ve got going there, it’s Muscle Shoals meets San Francisco, which is kind of the story of Donna’s career. She came up as backup singer in the Muscle Shoals studios, singing behind Percy Sledge, Dionne Warwick, Cher, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, and then in the early ’70s moved to San Francisco and became a live singer in the Grateful Dead.
“So we’ve got this album that takes the fat grooves of Muscle Shoals and marries it with the jamming psychedelic aesthetic of San Francisco.”
“Back Around” features two songs co-written by Mattson and Godchaux (“Delta Jubilee” and the title song), and Godchaux has writing credits on another pair of songs. Covers (including markedly reinvented versions of the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” The Beatles’ “She Said She Said” and the Youngbloods’ “Darkness Darkness”).
Mattson is pleased that Godchaux got to showcase her songwriting.
“People don’t realize how talented she is,” he said. “We’ve written five or six songs together, I guess, and I’ve always been blown away by what she brings to the table and the depth of her lyric writing and stuff like that. You know, she had only a couple of songs when she was in the Grateful Dead, and people didn’t really get to see that.”