The spirit of the Grateful Dead was alive and well this past weekend as veteran improv rockers Dark Star Orchestra finally played their annual New Year’s Eve celebration in Albany. Held on April 1st and 2nd at the storied Palace Theatre and re-dubbed “Fool Year’s Eve,” the joke was on you if you missed this gratuitous good-time jubilee. Couldn’t make it to the show? No need to worry, our man on the scene, NYS Music photojournalist Zak Radick was there and has a full recap of all the sights and sounds from the memorable occasion.
It all started around 7pm when suddenly out of nowhere, they came out from everywhere. Funneling into the base of Clinton Ave and North Pearl, an apparent make-shift flash mob of “Dead Head’s” made the sidewalk near McGeary’s Irish Pub the weekend’s designated ‘Shakedown Street’ for this trip to Albany. A traveling do-it-yourself marketplace for fans to commerce and socialize with our like-minded folks, these pop-up flea markets AKA Shakedown Street’s, have been a longstanding fixture for fans of the original Grateful Dead community going on decades now and are just one of the many traditions fans still regularly practice. It was a nice thing to see in a town that’s been through so much, yet never lost heart. Vibrant and friendly, chatty and colorful, the pre-game hustle was in full swing outside the historic venue just prior to showtime. Having already been there and done that, the older ‘heads’ soon began filing inside, not wanting to miss a moment of the opening acoustic set from DSO guitar player Jeff Mattson. And they were sure glad they did, as they were serenaded by a delightful opening combo of “Dire Wolfe” and “Deep Elem Blues” while finding their seats. Soon word had reached the street that the show “was on” and before long the lower level of the gorgeous room was packed with people and yes, an overwhelming smell of patchouli, body odor and pot.
The Palace looking as lovely as ever, a simple glance around the theatre revealed a fan base the spanned all ages and backgrounds, but most skewing older. Many wearing tie dye, some with dreadlocks to their knees and flowers in their hair, others covering up in cowboy hats and trucker caps, while other came dressed in their New Year’s best, sporting their finest sparkling dancing pants and glamorous glittering jackets. Still, there were the other ones. The fans who looked like regular Joes you’d pass in a grocery store aisle and never expect they’d know every single word to every single song written by Jerry Garcia and company. The brief but beautiful acoustic set from Mattson also featured Lisa Mackey on harmonica and concluded with a sentimental rendition of “Ripple,” sending fans buzzing to intermission debating if that was a recreation from a Dead set, or a standalone, original set of select Dead covers.
With balloons hanging high over the Palace, the Dark Star Orchestra causally took the stage around 8:30 to a rowdy ovation from eager and attentive fans. Comprised of members Rob Eaton and Jeff Mattson on guitars and vocals, Rob Barraco on keys, Rob Koritz and Dino English on drums and percussion, Skip Vangelas on bass and Lisa Mackey on backing vocals and harmonica, DSO has been a fixture in the jam scene for more than 20 years and have over 3,000 shows under their belts. Bringing the essence of a live Grateful Dead show back to reality for a whole new generation, the band is often seen as one of the top acts of their kind, and now popular enough to fill a place like the Palace. An impressive testament to their consistency and quality of performances.
Perhaps with acknowledgement to GD history, or perhaps in acknowledgement of the heady pre-show Shakedown scene earlier, it seemed fitting when Dark Star Orchestra opened the second set of the night with a rambunctious rendition of the beloved classic “Shakedown Street”. The appreciative audience already spilling out into the aisleways and concession overflow area in full ‘dance-party boogie’ mode. By this point, you just had that old familiar feeling that it was fixing to be a fun night! From there, the band went into a “Me and My Uncle >Mexicali Blues” segment, followed by a lively “Cold Rain and Snow” that saw the crowd showcasing their collective ‘singalong’ voices one of the loudest times of the night. A “blues” heavy set, we also caught “CC Rider,” “It Must Have Been the Roses,” “Beat It On Down The Line,” and a lengthy “Big Boss Man>New Minglewood Blues>Don’t Ease Me In” to send fans to their second set break of the evening.
There was a special moment just prior to the start of the third set when the DSO crew invited legendary Albany promoter Greg Bell of Guthrie Bell Productions out to the stage. Marking thirty years to the day since holding his first show, Bell made a brief but candid toast, thanking the dedicated music fans of the Capital Region for all the support over the years. A mutual moment respect and acknowledgement for a man who’s meant so much to the local music community for the last three decades.
When everyone returned, the rocking second set kicked off with “Iko Iko” and then in one of the musical peaks of the night, a fantastic high energy take on a “Playing in the Band”> “Terrapin Station” > “Playing in the Band” sandwich before things got a little weird with the obligatory “Drums/space”. Things started cooking again with the slow and building crescendo of “The Other One” that seamlessness faded into “Not Fade Away” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” “Morning Dew” would round out the set with just enough time for another quick break before the midnight shenanigans would ensue.
Honoring the spirit of the original Grateful Dead, the band played well into the evening giving fans exactly what they were hoping for. As the clock now approached midnight, the balloons that had been hanging over head all night finally released and DTO began the famililar chords of the song they took their name from, “Dark Star.” Loving every second of it, fans were quick to bat the balloons around like beach balls, and seemingly keep them afloat for the remainder of the show. A pair of fan favorite “Bertha” and “Good Lovin’” brought the show to an end and the audience to their feet, howling in approval and for just one more. Happy to oblige, DTO returned with Lisa Mackey taking center stage during an encore of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” before cluing the audience this performance was an originally inspired by the Grateful Dead’s December 311st, 1981 show in Oakland, California.
A great performance made even better by the great crowd, Dark Star Orchestra surpassed expectations. They sounded fantastic, musically tight and with singing voices strong and full of vigor. It was an evening drenched in familiarity and comfort and the result was a near perfect atmosphere for the audience to let themselves get lost in. That indescribable feeling only the live music experience can deliver and on this first night in April, the Palace Theatre in Albany was truly a fool’s paradise.
Dark Star Orchestra | 4.1.2022 | Albany, NY | Palace Theatre
Set 1: (Jeff Mattson Acoustic) Dire Wolf, Deep Elem Blues, Ripple
Set 2: Shakedown Street ; Me And My Uncle > Mexicali Blues ; Cold Rain And Snow ; C.C. Rider* ; It Must Have Been The Roses** ; Beat It On Down The Line ; Big Boss Man* > New Minglewood Blues* > Don’t Ease Me In
Set 3: Iko Iko ; Playing In The Band > Terrapin Station > Playing In The Band > drums > space > The Other One > Not Fade Away > Going Down The Road Feeling Bad > Morning Dew
Set 4: Dark Star > Bertha > Good Lovin’
Encore: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue**
Filler: My Sisters And Brothers
* with Lisa on harmonica – original had Matt Kelly
** with Lisa on vocals – original had Joan Baez
Dark Star Orchestra | 4.2.2022 | Albany, NY | Palace Theatre
Set 1: Hell In A Bucket > Let It Rock ; When I Paint My Masterpiece ; Loser ; Cumberland Blues ; I’ll Take A Melody > Deal ; Masters of War ; Box Of Rain > One More Saturday Night
Set 2: Here Comes Sunshine > Greatest Story Ever Told ; Revolution > Feel Like A Stranger > drums > space > Corrina > Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Throwing Stones > Days Between > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower
Encore: Brokedown Palace