CONCERT RECAP: Dark Star Orchestra @ 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C. 12/7/13

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Words by Craig McKinnis

I’ve heard the stories. For years, friends have told me their tales of seeing Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) in intimate ballrooms and “big rooms” around the country and gushed over their ability to recreate historic Grateful Dead shows to near perfection. But I was lucky enough to be alive when the Grateful Dead was intact and touring. I have dozens of shows under my belt. Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, founding members of the Grateful Dead, are still alive and well…and more importantly, still have been touring in numerous incarnations of the Dead. Why would I take time to see yet another pretender? So, I entered this show as a DSO newbie…and with a bit of a dubious attitude.

This show’s venue, Washington D.C.’s legendary 9:30 Club, deserves mention of its own. The club has been D.C.’s preeminent live music venue for decades. Band managers, promoters and musicians agree – they recently ranked 9:30 Club as the #1 “big room” in the U.S. in Rolling Stone’s annual “Venues that Rock” poll.

What makes the 9:30 Club so special? Its size, with a capacity of 1,200, makes it large enough of a room to produce true crowd energy while still being small enough to feel close to, and maintain a connection with, the artists on stage. The layout comprises two levels with the top horseshoe shaped looking down on the floor and stage below. The club is also unique in its design by having the upstairs both wider and deeper than the lower level. This not only provides a different look and feel, but also acoustic differences from most venues. Club ownership had to actually invert the PA stacks when they hung them (against manufacturers design) to compensate for the floor differences and it produces a unique sound, especially on the upper level. Lastly, and most importantly, the club’s own history fuels its current day success. Every band that plays the 9:30 Club feels the need to live up to the legend of the club, and they play hard, almost without fail.

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Let’s be honest — venue plays a big role in overall show enjoyment levels. These things make a difference.

The first set kicked off with a rather standard “Let the Good Times Roll”, which has always served in this opening slot as more of a band warm-up number than anything else. But things got interesting quickly thereafter as DSO dropped into a very early first set positioning of “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider”. Their playing was very inspired and I started to understand what friends had been telling me. Their sound, compared to the Dead’s, is uncanny — nearly identical. Not only in their instrumentation, but in their voices; that’s the amazing part of it. Rob Eaton on rhythm guitar sounds like Bob Weir when he sings. Same with Rob Barraco on keyboards, his voice can sound like Brent Mydland’s. It’s almost eerie.

Next up was a solid, very well played run through “New Minglewood Blues”, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, “Easy Wind” and “Mama Tried”. But then DSO played “West L.A. Fadeaway”. I wasn’t upset with the song — it was a very funky and enjoyable version — but it was the tip-off for me that DSO was not recreating a classic Dead show but concocting an original set list of their own from the Dead’s repertoire. Rounding out the first set were “Box of Rain”, “Touch of Grey” and “Rubin and Cherise”.

At the set break, I wondered what DSO would pull out of their bag of tricks for the second set now that I knew they weren’t bound by a setlist from the past. Knowing further that this was DSO’s last show of their Fall Tour, I figured they’d like to close out tour in style. And that’s exactly what they did.

Set two opened with a very unique combination of “St. Stephen” > “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot” > “St. Stephen” > “Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower” — a pairing I don’t even believe the Dead ever put together themselves. This was so well played and at such a high energy level, that I was sold on the band at that point. But what struck me even more was that what’s so special about DSO was starting to sink in with me. It’s not that their music is so unquestionably good, it’s that you can hear this music played at this high of a level in a venue this small! My touring days with the Grateful Dead were between 1987 and Jerry Garcia’s death in the summer of 1995. By 1987, the Dead had long since graduated from small venues and they were playing huge stadiums and arenas. Venues way too large prevent musical intimacy, but this is music played in a room small enough to completely wash over and take hold of you. And via DSO, the opportunity is now being made available to me and other fans of this genre of music. That’s a special thing and it should be appreciated and savored.

Following on their blistering start to the second set, DSO launched into the obligatory “Drums” and “Space”…not bad versions by any standards, but it did seem to lose some in attendance. It’s simply a little too trippy for the average music fan. Closing out the show were “The Wheel”, “I Need a Miracle”, a surprising selection, and haunting version of, “Death Don’t have no Mercy” and being a Saturday, a rocking version of “One More Saturday Night”. The encore was more playful that artful with a selection of a Christmas song made famous by Chuck Berry, “Run Rudolph Run”, and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”.

From beginning to end, the show was fantastic, better than I had expected as I headed in the doors earlier in the evening. Overall, I think I now see DSO as a less of a cover or tribute band and more as musical historians and preservationists keeping the tradition alive of one of the greatest live acts ever. The musicians are very talented at each of their given instruments, they’ve obviously prepared meticulously for each of their performances, and their execution is near flawless, just like my friends had told me. If you’re a Deadhead, be sure to catch DSO in a venue near you. You won’t be disappointed.

Setlist:
Set 1: Let the Good Times Roll, China Cat Sunflower, I Know You Rider, New Minglewood Blues, Mississippii Half-Step Uptown Tudeloo, Easy Wind, Mama Tried, Big River, West L.A. Fadeaway, Box of Rain, Touch of Grey, Rubin and Cherise
Set 2: St. Stephen, Help on the Way, Slipknot, St. Stephen, Slipknot, Franklin’s Tower, Drums, Space, The Wheel, I Need a Miracle, Death Don’t have no Mercy, One More Saturday Night
Encore: Run Rudolph Run, White Rabbit