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PHOTOS & REVIEW: Dark Star Orchestra – Majestic Theater

Grateful Dead cover band par excellence Dark Star Orchestra brought their hippy love to the Majestic Theatre last Wednesday night. MCB's Andrew Bender was there to take some photos, get down, and geek out with the other deadheads. Read on for Drew's review:

My assistant and I arrived at the Majestic complex early to get a bite to eat at the Majestic Café, but we were disappointed to find them closed for renovations. So, after a quick bite at Honest John’s down the street, we made our way back to wait out in the cold to get to the will-call window, while the Majestic’s security dude took his job as seriously as Roscoe P. Coletrain. After getting back inside and securing a nice spot at the stage toward the right, my assistant graciously went to the bar while I held our spot at the stage. We didn’t have to wait for very long before Rob Eaton, the rhythm guitarist and singer (or “Bobby,” if you will) came out on stage, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the band including Lisa Mackey on vocals, Jeff Mattson on lead guitar and vocals in the “Jerry” role, Kevin Rosen on bass, Rob Barraco on piano, and Rob Koritz and Dino English on percussion. The crowd had largely filled in and ages ranged from high schoolers to seventy year-olds, and people had come to boogie. Okay, I’m just going to say and acknowledge this one time and then move on because it’s not largely germaine (or tito) to the real review of the show: Dark Star Orchestra is a Grateful Dead cover/tribute/reproduction band, and as such their fans enjoy the same fragrant, inhaled, combustible intoxicants as their forebears and brethren. And the place just stunk, but the unhindered cigarette (and I mean tobacco in that case) smoking didn’t help at all. And back to the show.

Read on below for more of Andrew’s take on the show.

The Grateful Dead are loved by their fans for their ever-changing set lists, which always differed from night to night, the progression of their music is reflected in their set lists over their 30 year long career. Dark Star Orchestra is best known as performing entire Grateful Dead shows, song-for-song. Unbeknownst to the audience at the time, the band was performing a show from February 5th, 1978 – an era recognized by many as among the Dead’s best years. For a full setlist, check out show 1897 by clicking here.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since Jerry Garcia passed, and a Dark Star Orchestra show is truly the next best thing to being there. That said, it’s still a far cry from the scene ‘back in the day,’ but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I was there with plenty of other long-standing Deadheads. Truly in many ways this setlist was a ‘best of,’ featuring Dead standards Bertha, Brown Eyed Women, Tennessee Jed, New Minglewood Blues, Friend of the Devil, Deal (and that was just the first set!). Bertha into Good Lovin’ was a barn-burner of a opening, a one-two punch that had the audience up and rockin from the beginning. From there, slower ballads pulled the audience’s emotion strings. As the band and crowd both sang, I didn’t have that queasy, “I’m stuck in cover band hell because the wasted chick next to me is screaming the song in my face,” feeling I’ve had at times in the past when seeing Grateful Dead music performed by anyone else. I can’t say that everyone was doing well - the older, white haired guy next to me was a little too loaded by this point and started leaning on those around him before taking a header into the floor (ouch), and was then helped up and kept dancing until his friends helped drag him to a safer (i.e. seated) spot. After Mackey sang Sunrise, one of the few Dead songs by Donna Jean Godchaux, they launched into a smokin’ New Minglewood Blues before cooling it back off with a very slow-tempo version of Friend of the Devil. They continued the up and down rollercoaster that the Dead had penned so many years before by launching into Passenger that just rocked the hell out the place. A smoking Deal closed out the first set.

Although it’s a bizarre sensation to be able to close your eyes and be transported through time and space to a show 30 years earlier, the band are still their own musicians. All DSO band members are longtime veterans of the music, and each brings his or her own style to each song. This was most apparent on the longer jams of the second set, as Scarlet Begonias transitioned into Fire on the Mountain, Mattson’s guitar playing sought space between notes as Eaton alternated between rhythmic hard strikes and his own contribution to the jam. I was happy to have one of my best friends there and in the second set we played that fan-favorite game, “Name that Song,” where we tried to name the song before or just as it was starting to be played. My friend won the first round as I stumbled over myself trying to name the first notes of Scarlet. My friend called out TRUCKIN’ barely one second before the band played the first note and I had to give it to him – it was almost psychic. As the last notes of the song were played, I thought I heard a telltale rhythm in Koritz drumming, and I called out ‘The Other One’ to my friend, but was disappointed when the drummers took over and the rest of the band took a break during Drums. But then – just when the rest of the band returned and they started playing The Other One, it was all grins, high fives, and backslapping. Yes, it’s kinda silly, but so are most games. The band played Wharf Rat in the post-drums Jerry ballad slot, and although it brought no tears to my eyes (yes, I’m a sappy hippy), it was still a solid performance. I do wish I had left before the U.S. Blues encore – never one of my favorites, and it always seemed like a waste of a good encore spot, but that’s just me. It’s hard to fault DSO for any of that, but that’s just what happens when you cover a show, with the good and the bad (or not so good). In all, the band continues to impress with their seemingly effortless recreation of the Grateful Dead’s shows. I can’t wait for the next time they come through Detroit.