What a long, Dark tribute it's been

The Dark Star Orchestra brings the sounds of the Grateful Dead — often by performing entire setlists from Dead concerts — to the Phillips Center. (Courtesy of Bob Minkin)

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 1:12 p.m.

In the 30-year run that made the Grateful Dead the definitive band of its kind, the Dead racked up more than 2,300 live performances. And in the 15 years that the Dark Star Orchestra has been recreating many of those exact same shows, the latter has performed some 2,200 as the premier salutary group of the former.


The Dark Star Orchestra

What: Grateful Dead tribute band performs
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 3201 Hull Road
Tickets: $15-$25
Info: 392-2787, Ticketmaster.com

If Dark Star doesn't get around to every show the Dead performed in its epochal career, it won't be for lack of trying: The seven-member Dark Star Orchestra has a hard drive of every show the Dead performed. And before setting out on its own tours, like the one that brings it to the Phillips Center on Friday, the group plans out each show it's going to play — selecting entire set lists from the hard drive of Dead shows and performing them in their entirety for most stops on the tour.

“We're picking from the whole history of the Grateful Dead, all of their set lists,” Dark Star singer/guitarist Jeff Mattson says on the phone from a tour stop in Charlotte, where the group's venue for the night is fittingly named The Fillmore.

“Our rhythm guitarist, Robbie [Eaton] works this out ahead of time before the tour, because we want to make sure that we don't play the same material and the same era that we played the last time in the same town.

“And we don't want to play the same songs that we played the night before and the night after. So we try to keep it mixed up and fresh for everybody including ourselves.”

Since beginning its own run as a band in 1997, Dark Star has proven enduringly popular among hard-core Dead Heads — many of whom whip out their iPhones at a Dark Star performance to try and find exactly which Dead show they are listening to, Mattson says.

And his band also is popular among those who simply appreciate the timeless quality of many of the Grateful Dead's best-known songs as well as the seminal band's approach to music itself, which literally combined elements of rock, country, jazz and blues for a steady amalgam that might best be described today as Americana (plugged-in as it is).

“The old slogan was ‘There's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert',” Mattson says about the Dead's enduring popularity. “And even though there's many jam bands, there's never been nothing quite like the Grateful Dead. Their songs really endure; they're kind of timeless. They're not really locked into any particular era. Stylistically, they're kind of like good, pure Americana music.”

Though it's impossible to say in advance what Dark Star might play in Gainesville on Friday, Mattson says the band regularly includes the songs that get instant recognition and appreciation from audience members — “Scarlet Begonias,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Shakedown Street” and “St. Stephen” among others — as well as lesser well-known songs that band members are delighted to play and fans are thrilled to hear.

And what about “Dark Star” itself, the song for which the band is named and the one that for many Dead fans remains the holy grail of any Grateful Dead performance, original or replicated?

“That's kind of the holiest of the holies for me,” Mattson says, “because it's barely a song in the sense that it has these two short little verse sections, and the rest is a very, very loose framework for improvisation.

“So it's the most representative of where you're at musically and emotionally any given night because it's so pure, it's just pure improvisation. You're certainly not sitting there copying any licks other than the stuff that goes in the short verse sections. It's all just wide open.”

Contact Entertainment Editor Bill Dean at 374-5039 or at bill.dean@gvillesun.com, and follow on Twitter @SceneBillDean.

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