On Sunday July 31, Dark Star Orchestra tested the waters of the newly opened Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk. They got the crowd moving right away with a rocking “Passenger” as fans young and old exchanged high fives. As per usual, there were several setlist detectives in the audience trying to determine what classic show the band was recreating before our eyes and ears. I discovered an early Easter egg as only one drummer appeared on the stage, hinting at the fact that Mickey Hart was not present for this gig.
Lead guitarist Jeff Mattson did an exceptional job filling Jerry’s shoes for “Sugaree,” before Rob Barraco tackled Pigpen’s “Mr. Charlie.” The “Black Throated Wind” that followed had a particularly hot ending as Rob Eaton embodied the role of Bob Weir. Always searching for a Grateful Dead setlist motif, I instantly became fascinated with the gambling aspect of “Loser” that was presented in the fifth spot. At every DSO show, us setlist detectives are attempting to discover the recreation by playing the hand we are dealt by the band members, and we had no chance of losing this time. Another ace was drawn once Barraco jumped back on the lead vocals for “Next Time You See Me,” channeling Pigpen in what was sure to be an early 70’s performance. Lisa Mackey, normally filling in as Donna, covered the harmonica for the tune during her first appearance of the night. A standard “El Paso” gave way to another song referencing a card game, “Dire Wolf.”
The spirit of Pigpen returned for “Two Souls in Communion,” relaxing the audience before a spaced-out “Playing In The Band.” After the 15-minute-plus version, I had enough set list evidence to predict the band’s recreation. I knew it was something from Europe ’72 as classic Pigpen tunes were frequent, yet they jumped in the deep end for “Playin’.” With assistance from a quick Google search, I discovered that they were recreating the iconic final show of their European run, May 26, 1972 from London. The show would be Pigpen’s second to last performance with the band, and symbolically the next song after my setlist discovery was “He’s Gone.”
A familiar “Cumberland Blues” and “Jack Straw” led to “Chinatown Shuffle,” which is the last tune Pigpen ever sang on stage. In fact, the four songs sang by Pigpen in the first set would follow him to his grave after that hallowed evening. My lyrical deck of cards theory returned with the “diamond-eye Jack” during “China> Rider.” On the eve of Jerry’s birthday, a wave of euphoria came over the crowd during the “Not Fade Away> Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad> Not Fade Away” sandwich that closed out the mesmerizing and particularly long first set.
An extended “Truckin’” reminded the New York audience of the ways and means as the second set caught fire early. The band treated us to the night’s second sandwich with “The Other One > Morning Dew > The Other One.” It isn’t clear if Jerry is singing directly to Pigpen during one of his final nights, but this version is one of the best in Dead history and DSO did an excellent job recapturing the emotion from over 44 years ago. Not only was the “Dew” sang with such emotion, but the jam that ensued showcased bassist Skip Vangelas dropping some serious Phil-bombs to test the foundation of the newly built venue.
“Sing Me Back Home” gave us a moment to catch our breath before the “high-lo jack and the winner takes the hand” lyrics brought a smile to my face during “Me and My Uncle.” “Ramble On Rose” brought the casino-night motif to a close and presented the “aces back to back” before a high-energy two-pack of “Sugar Magnolia” and “Casey Jones” closed the second set. As the 11PM curfew rounded the corner, DSO remained on stage and quickly wished Captain Trips a happy birthday. A fellow setlist detective gave me a pat on the back as the May 1972 discovery was confirmed. Closing out the Sunday, the band gave us one more reason to enjoy the weekend with “One More Saturday Night.” Outside the venue, dozens of fans roamed the beach holding balloons with smiles on their faces (I can only assume for Mr. Garcia’s birthday). The first ever Grateful Dead recreation at the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island was a massive success and I predict the energy to return during two nights of Phil & Friends in mid-September. Decades after that magical night on the other side of the Atlantic, Deadheads were once again treated to the peace, tranquility and curiosity of a beautiful experience, just like waves upon the sand.