By Neil Benjamin Jr.
When Dark Star Orchestra made its way to the Westcott Theater this past Sunday, it was difficult for me to understand, fully, the emotion I used to have for the band.
For years I saw them dozens of times, closing my eyes and pretending I was at a Grateful Dead show and enjoying an experience I was far too young to taste myself, as Jerry Garcia had passed away when I was just eight years old.
But this DSO show was different. It was my first non-festival DSO show without former guitarist John Kadlecik, who made the leap from the minor leagues to the majors in joining Furthur, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s latest post-Jerry Dead collaboration in late 2009. In his place was a fitting man, one who even looks similar to Jerry: Jeff Mattson.
Well, to be blunt, I still had a blast. With a rollicking “Here Comes Sunshine” to kick things off – the crowd still filling the small venue – DSO proved to me they hadn’t lost a step. In fact, I’d say they gained a little more soul with Mattson leading the group.
“Me and my Uncle,” “Ramble on Rose” and “Looks Like Rain” had me wondering if this was an early 1970s Dead recreation, or an original setlist, which I prefer. “Deal,” “Mexicali Blues” and “They Love Each Other” told me this was definitely a recreation, which turned out to be from St. Louis on October 30, 1973. “El Paso,” “Row Jimmy” and “Jack Straw” kept the flow of upbeat tunes coming, but the band seemed a step slow. That, or I was just slow from a week of work and not Thanksgiving celebration. Who knows?
Easily the highlight of the knight came next with my favorite pairing of “China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider.” Mattson took the lead, trading licks with Rob Barraco, the man who has played keyboards with countless post-Jerry bands. To close the set was a spacey, yet tight, “Playing in the Band.”
The second set kept pace with a “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” a personal favorite, that featured the intricate song played flawlessly. “Big River” got the crowd back on its toes before the group bled into “Dark Star.” This wasn’t your average version, as the psychedelic riffs from Mattson were in perfect sync with the tribal rhythms provided by drummer Dino English.
The rest of the set was a segue-fest, with “Dark Star” moving seamlessly into “Stella Blue>Eyes of the World>Weather Report Suite Prelude>Weather Report Part 1>Let it Grow” before the band finally took a breather. “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad>Johnny B. Goode” closed one hell of a set. For the encore, as predicted, was “One More Saturday Night,” a tune that had the Westcott going like it was 1973 again.
While this version of DSO is definitely different from the last incarnation, one thing holds true: The Grateful Dead spirit Is alive, well and on a trip that hopefully never ends.