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Dark Star Orchestra delivers a dead ringer performance (photos)

By Nick McCabe
Published: Last Updated on

Dark Star Orchestra has been going down the road feeling good since 1997. There have been many variations over the years, but the band – which bills itself as a Grateful Dead live concert experience – has continued to grow its fan base and concert attendance every year. 

Being a late bloomer in the Dead world, I attended my first Grateful Dead show in June 1990. I probably saw about 20 shows before Jerry Garcia died in 1995. With that being my past history of Deadness, I was excited to hear what DSO had to offer. 

I’d heard good things about DSO over the years and have wondered about them, but never felt like traveling a long way to a show. Thanks to the Virginia Street Brewhouse I only had to take a 25-minute drive to have the Grateful Dead Experience once again. No more long strange trips for me.

Dark Star Orchestra performs at Virginia Street Brewhouse Aug. 2, 2022 in Reno, Nev.
Dark Star Orchestra performs at Virginia Street Brewhouse Aug. 2, 2022 in Reno, Nev. Image: Nick McCabe / This Is Reno

DSO is usually playing to much larger crowds, on much larger stages. I think Reno lucked out in having them stop in at the VSB on their way to other shows in northern California, including the three day festival called The Days Between in Loyalton, honoring Jerry Garcia.

They are known for playing past Grateful Dead setlists in their shows, and even using equipment appropriate for the time of the past show. This set was from Aug. 1, 1973, Jerry Garcia’s 31st birthday (49 years and one day ago from this show). He would have been 80 years old this year.

Most of the singing is done by the two guitarists: Bob Eaton and Jeff Mattson. Eaton joined DSO in 2001 after almost 20 years with another Grateful Dead tribute band. I found it amazing how well he emulates Bob Weir. I’ve never seen this band before, but it only took seconds to see how perfectly he fits the part. His gestures, his stance, his movements are all spot on. He even sings just like Weir.

Mattson was just as impressive playing Garcia’s guitar parts and singing his songs. His gentle touch and tonality on the guitar were very nice indeed. His voice, especially in the soft and emotional passages of Garcia’s phrasing was perfect.

Keyboardist Rob Barrasco, who is usually encircled by keyboards, was the picture of bliss in flip flops and headband, grinning as he played. From up above I could see his hands dancing across the keyboard, knowing exactly where to go. He’s quite the talented player, plus he has an incredible resume.

The rhythm section of Skip Vangelas on bass and Dino English on drums kept things as tight as you can hope for. Usually Rob Koritz is playing a second drum kit, but there just wasn’t enough room for both drummers. I wonder if they flipped a coin to see who had the night off and who played.

The only person performing who has been a part of the band since 1997 is singing superstar, Lisa Mackay. She came out for a couple songs in each set wearing headphones that I believe were just ear protection, since she also had in ear monitors. (When you get our age you can’t be too careful!) She sang some beautiful harmonies.

My opinion of Dark Star Orchestra is that they are at the top of the Dead pyramid. They do it as well as anybody could do it. They have had multiple Grateful Dead members play with them, and many of them have been involved with Grateful Dead members’ projects themselves. You can’t get a better endorsement than that. 

They played 22 songs this night with a break in the middle, starting shortly after 8 p.m. and finishing up around midnight. 

The crowd is always a part of a Grateful Dead show, and this crowd played its part too. You had the spinning dancers with arms waving all around, there was a cape man up front, and the whole crowd was into it and happy to be there. 

I even met a fine gentleman who spent a good portion of his evening keeping others cool with his Koza-sen, a Japanese folding fan. I really appreciated that. 

Peace and harmony abounded.

If you are a fan of the Grateful Dead, but have been hesitant to go to a Dead tribute show,
because you don’t want to be disappointed,
Never fear, Dark Star Orchestra is here.

Aug. 1, 1973 setlist from Roosevelt Stadium, New Jersey

The Promised Land / Sugaree / The Race Is On / You Ain’t Woman Enough / Bird Song / Mexicali Blues / They Love Each Other / Jack Straw / Stella Blue / Big River / Casey Jones

Intermission

Around and Around /Mississippi Half-Step / Me and My Uncle / Row Jimmy / Dark Star / El Paso / Eyes Of The World / Morning Dew / Sugar Magnolia / Going Down The Road Feeling Bad / One More Saturday Night

Update

It was brought to my attention that I overlooked a contributing factor to why there was only one drummer in this show. 

It is true that the stage would not accommodate two drummers, but it is also true that in 1973, when this setlist was performed by The Grateful Dead in New Jersey, drummer Mickey Hart was not playing with the band. He had left the band in 1971 and did not return until 1975.

One drummer at that show; one drummer at this show. That’s how DSO does it.

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