A cover band beyond description
July 21, 2005
Many is the story of a skeptical music fan, dragged to a Grateful Dead show by a Deadhead friend, only to exit the arena four hours later a convert.Bob Matthews has a different twist on the tale.Matthews was not just a Deadhead, but an integral part of some of the band’s greatest successes. He was credited as producer of 1970’s “Workingman’s Dead,” a pinnacle of the Dead’s studio output. Building on that triumph, Matthews offered to do his own mix of some live 1969 tracks the band had recorded. That mix became “Live/Dead” – not only the quintessential capturing of the early Grateful Dead experience, but one of rock’s great live albums.So when Matthews happened to be at a concert by Dark Star Orchestra, a group that meticulously re-creates Dead shows in their entirety, he could barely summon up the enthusiasm even to shrug. (Dark Star plays tonight at Aspen’s Belly Up.)Matthews was at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium – a holy site in early Dead history – last May to see and videotape the Heart of Gold Band, led by onetime Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux. When Godchaux’s set ended, Matthews began packing his equipment, peeved that his friend’s band got only 25 minutes on stage. Even the coaxing of two trusted associates – Betty Cantor-Jackson, with whom Matthews had created the beloved Bob & Betty Dead bootleg recordings; and Don Pearson, whose Ultrasound was responsible for the Dead’s live PA system – could barely dissuade him from an early exit.
“I said, ‘I recorded the original. I’ve been there. Why would I want to record a copy?'” recalled Matthews by phone from his home in the East Bay region of California. “They were just another band doing Grateful Dead songs.”Eventually, Matthews re-considered the sources. If Cantor-Jackson and Pearson were impressed by Dark Star Orchestra, he could spare a listen. Besides, he had some extra tape and his crew could use the experience in recording.Matthews was hooked before Dark Star even got to the lyrics of the night’s opening tune, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.””Six or seven seconds after the music started, I said, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?'” said Matthews. “From what I was hearing, I expected to look up and see the original band. These guys were me think I was hearing and experiencing the Grateful Dead from yesteryear.”And I’m a person who knows something about the Grateful Dead.”Matthews now knows something about Dark Star Orchestra too. From that night’s recording, he made the DVD/CD set “Live at the Fillmore,” a re-creation of the Dead’s May 5, 1977, show at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, Conn. Last August, Matthews – against the advice of the band – schlepped his crew and gear to Colorado’s State Bridge Lodge to videotape three more nights of Dark Star. Whether that gets produced into a full-blown package depends upon the success of the first product, released last month. But Matthews vows he will release the State Bridge shows if “Live at the Fillmore” brings in just one dollar above his costs.
Matthews’ newfound devotion to Dark Star goes beyond the sounds and songs. He is impressed by their dedication to being a band. More than that, he is affected by the spirit of a Dark Star Orchestra show.”Re-creating the fashion, accurately re-creating the experience – that’s just phenomenal to me,” he said. “Dark Star Orchestra isn’t an act; they’re not effecting their performance to accomplish that. They’re just being themselves, playing the music they want to play.”Tragically, and surreally, Dark Star has also built on the Dead legacy away from the stage. Scott Larned, the band’s original keyboardist, died earlier this year; three Grateful Dead keyboardists – Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland – preceded him to the grave.Matthews isn’t the only Dead insider to have been won over by Dark Star. Godchaux joined the band onstage at the Fillmore show that Matthews recorded; Dead members Bob Weir, Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten have also joined the band onstage. But perhaps the hardest-won convert was Matthews.”I’m a person who knows something about Grateful Dead music,” he said.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org