Capturing the spirit, if not the notes

Dark Star Orchestra aims to channel the Grateful Dead, not replicate them

Cory O'Brien | Boulder Weekly

As far as seminal groups of the ’60s and ’70s go, the Grateful Dead were a little bit different. They were less a band than a way of life — a living, breathing mass of humanity with smiles on their faces and flowers behind their ears, traveling around the country mixing hippie mysticism with killer jams. Zeppelin fans can recapture the feeling of Plant and Page with a six-pack of Budweiser and an FM radio tuned to a classic rock station, the Beatles will forever live on in their various classic albums, and as long as there is a stoned teenager trying to sync up Dark Side of the Moon with the Wizard of Oz, the spirit of Pink Floyd will be alive and well. But fans of the Dead want a little more help to keep the band’s spirit alive. They need the Dark Star Orchestra.


The Dead have never been radio mainstays, and while American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are rightly regarded as classic works of Americana, their studio output barely scratches the surface of the Dead’s impact during their three decades as a touring band. Unlike the Beatles, where all someone needs to truly “get” the group is a pair of headphones and a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s, the Grateful Dead need to be seen live to be truly appreciated. And with apologies to the recently formed Bob Weir/Phil Lesh group Furthur, the spot-on tribute band Dark Star Orchestra offers fans the best chance to catch what the Dead were like at the height of their powers.

“The thing with the Dead was, you never really knew when the magic was going to happen,” says Dark Star guitarist/Jerry Garcia stand-in Jeff Mattson. “You can go four nights, and then on the fifth night, everything just clicks between the audience and the band, where everything is magical and everyone just feels it. We’ve had a couple of those nights with Dark Star, where everything is just perfect.”

In fact, calling the group a tribute band at all doesn’t really do them justice. The band recreates classic Grateful Dead shows with a painstaking amount of detail, ensuring that the equipment and general sound of the night is true to the era they are covering. But the fluid nature of the Dead’s music and Dark Star’s willingness to embrace that fluidity means that no two Dark Star songs will ever sound the same, and no Dark Star song will ever sound exactly like the way the Grateful Dead played it.

In playing what Mattson refers to as “real music in real time,” he feels that Dark Star is more in line with the spirit of the Dead than if they were playing note-for-note rehashes of classic Dead shows.

“It wouldn’t be true to the Dead if we were to learn one version of ‘Rambling Rose’ and learn it note-for-note, and play the same version every time we perform that song,” explains Mattson. “We have a vocabulary to work with, but at the end of the day we are playing it as it happens.”

If tribute bands often give off the appearance that they are play-acting, it is because in a sense, most of them are. A Guns ‘N Roses tribute band may play all the notes of “Paradise City” exactly as they sound on Appetite for Destruction, but it really doesn’t feel like a GNR show unless you’re scared the guy playing Axl Rose might come off of the stage and kick you in the face. But the spontaneity that comes with covering the Dead and the idea that any night could offer something special, something that no one has ever heard before and no one will ever hear again, gives Dark Star shows a similar vibe to the original Grateful Dead. Dark Star Orchestra feels more like a real band that happens to be playing Dead songs than a campy tribute band or a group resorting to cover songs because their originals couldn’t hack it.

“Because of all the improvisation goes along with Dead songs, we really get to express ourselves personally, because no one can really predict where the jam is going to go on any given night,” Mattson says.

That unpredictability has even led to Dark Star inheriting some of the touring culture that was so vital to the original Dead experience, with fans often joining the band for extended periods on the road. While nothing can truly recreate the magic of the original Dead, Mattson believes his band’s meticulous attention to detail is what has resonated so strongly with Deadheads young and old.

“There are a million different details that go into every show that make everything faithful to the style they were playing that particular day, week and year,” Mattson says. “We’re just trying to do our best to capture the spirit of the Dead in every show.”

On the Bill

Dark Star Orchestra plays the Boulder Theater on Thursday, April 14, and Friday, April 15. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $32 in advance, $37 day of show. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.