On Saturday night in Albany, Dark Star Orchestra brought the good ol’ Grateful Dead back to life in a stellar fashion. Excitement filled the room before the first note was played as word had spread that Jeff Chimenti would be on keys for the entire show as he did the night before in New Haven, CT. Normally holding down the boards, Rob Barraco replaced Skip Vangelas on bass creating a music chairs scenario that we were all ready to embrace.
Opening the set with a heartfelt “Sugaree,” the Capital Region crowd began to “shake it” on low gear while blissfully enjoying Jeff Mattson’s passionate vocals. After the silky first set introduction, rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton wasted no time channeling the cowboy in Bob Weir with a wild west “Me and My Uncle> Big River” one-two punch. While “Me and My Uncle” is by far the most played song in the Dead’s expansive repertoire, I never get tired of the rockabilly energy release after a soul searching Jerry Garcia tune. Chimenti gave the fans a symbolic “YEEHAW” on the keys during “Big River” and reminded the room why he was invited by the remaining Dead members to join them on the “Fare Thee Well” run.
Slowing things down with an exceptional threesome of “Peggy-O,” “Cassidy” and “Friend of the Devil,” this show was starting to feel like a classic late-70’s gathering. Barraco displayed his nasty bass playing abilities during “Peggy-O” before Lisa Mackey floated her way on stage during “Cassidy,” playing the role of Donna Godchaux. She would return two songs later for “From the Heart of Me” which would turn out to be one of the last times this tune was ever played on stage. It was after “Ramble On Rose” that a wide-eyed seasoned tour-veteran giddily informed me of the Grateful Dead show the Orchestra was recreating: January 11th, 1979 from the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY.
My original hunch of a late-70’s show turned out to be true, but I did not realize the importance of the date until hearing the tear-the-roof-off “Jack Straw.” Cowboy Bob was back for this desperado masterpiece as Mattson threw in some rawer than usual jamming. Deadheads young and old call this one of the best versions of all time for the blistering Jerry solo and, nearly 38 years later, DSO honored their heroes to the fullest extent. Also noteworthy in the original performance was Bobby’s comical word-swap as he sang, “We used to play for acid, now we play for Clive.” But from what I heard on Saturday, Eaton left those lyrics in 1979. Out of all the stand-out moments of the first set, the vocal belting of “Jack Straw from Wichita” hit the crowd with a sonic uppercut that we didn’t recover from until after set break. The always rockin’ “Deal” closed out a set filled with Jerry’s greatest hits and some colossal Bobby moments in between.
Picking up right where the first set left off, “I Need a Miracle” carried the tidal wave of momentum that was felt over the intermission. “Ship of Fools” calmly sailed into the number two slot of the second set before kicking off another Weir-inspired highlight in “Estimated Prophet.” Chimenti, Barraco and Mattson provided the foundation for the psychedelic reggae and while we were in Upstate NY, the California lyrics were shown a lot of love. “My time’s comin’ any day” eerily stood out to me as the original 1979 show would be Keith Godchaux‘ last appearance at the famed Grateful Dead stomping grounds of the Nassau Coliseum. An even more fitting tune for the final night of Keith in Long Island, “He’s Gone” allowed my over-thinking self to read even further into the lyrics, symbolism and song placement of my favorite band. Fortunately, we were given a temporary vocal time-out and the spinners in the audience were treated to a short and sweet “Drums” by Dino English and Rob Koritz on kits and percussion.
New Yorkers from Long Island to Albany were able to enjoy the home state lyrics delivered in the straightforward version of “Truckin’” before the second major highlight of the set, “Stella Blue.” Mattson made his guitar strings shine one more time during this bluesy crowd pleaser. “Stella” may have a somber tone, but Jerry’s fiery guitar solo always brings the boil to high during this signature ballad and the Orchestra perfected the nucleus of the original. Closing the second set with a reminder of all we really need, “Good Lovin’” pleasantly drifted off into DSO show history.
The boys encored with “Casey Jones,” which serves as a rarity in late-70’s era. The “upper” drug reference in one of the band’s most radio-played tunes gave the crowd the extra pep in their step before pouring out into the street of Albany for a night cap. Similar to the good ol’ Grateful Dead, Dark Star Orchestra seems to have a particular affinity for the Empire State. While I have not done the research, I would suggest that New York may have more Deadheads per capita than any other state from sea to shining sea. Saturday night’s recreation of a legendary 1979 Nassau show performed in front of an Albany crowd furthered my love for New York State, the Grateful Dead and the incredibly talented Orchestra that pays tribute to them tour after tour. DSO returns to the state with “the ways and means” for two shows on November 25th and 26th at The Paramount in Huntington.
Nassau Coliseum – Uniondale, NY
Set 1: Sugaree, Me And My Uncle, Big River, Peggy-O, Cassidy, Friend Of The Devil, New Minglewood Blues, From The Heart Of Me, Ramble On Rose, Jack Straw, Deal
Set 2: I Need A Miracle, Ship Of Fools, Estimated Prophet, He’s Gone, Drums, Truckin’, The Other One, Stella Blue, Good Lovin’
Encore: Casey Jones