Dark Star Orchestra was onstage at the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo January 31, 2023.
When it comes to rock nostalgia tours, I have one hard and fast rule: if the band has no original members remaining, it’s a tribute act. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
After all, tribute bands continue to be the rage in 2023, a ubiquitous presence at nightclubs and festivals nationwide. The enduring musical legacy of many Hall of Fame rock bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the Grateful Dead live on through these touring wanna-bes.
One of the best, Dark Star Orchestra, came through SLO recently for a weeknight appearance as part of its Winter West tour. But DSO, as it is commonly referred to, doesn’t constitute your typical Grateful Dead tribute band, or any other one for that matter. Rather, it bills itself as a group that recreates a specific past concert experience by the 1960s jam band. And there are literally thousands of show archives to choose from.
. . . when this six-piece band from Chicago hit the stage . . . I knew it was going to be a good night.”
So on a chilly Tuesday evening at the venerable Fremont Theater, I was kind of surprised to see about 500 fellow Deadheads (I’m not really one but let’s just go with it) ready to dance, imbibe, and transport themselves back to a time and place between the Summer of Love and August 1995, when guitarist Jerry Garcia suddenly passed away.
But whether you love or loathe them, the lure of an immersive aural experience is undeniable, and when this six-piece band from Chicago hit the stage, silently tuned up their instruments, and broke into “Hell in a Bucket” from 1987’s wonderful “In the Dark” album, I knew it was going to be a good night.
Little did I know it would be a nearly four-hour tour de force musical marathon: 23 songs, numerous jams, and a communal vibe that was unlike any other tribute show I’ve attended. And trust me, I’ve seen them all.
What’s their secret sauce? Well, for starters these half-dozen musicians look somewhat similar to, and sound exactly like, the original band. I remember seeing Journey after lead singer Steve Perry quit, closing my eyes and thinking “Wow, that Filipino karaoke dude has Perry’s distinct alto vocals DOWN.”
They delivered what they promised and then some . . .”
With DSO, I didn’t need to go dark to figure out these guys were the real deal. They delivered what they promised and then some: spot-on versions of Dead originals, Dylan covers, blues standards and a lively rendition of the classic Rascals hit “Good Lovin’.”
I only got to witness the Grateful Dead live a handful of times back in the early 1990s, but distinctly remember the pattern: two sets, a long intermission, Drums and Space, more songs and jams, then a big finale. And no two of their shows ever had the exact same setlist of songs. This idea was genius because hardcore fans never wanted to miss a gig for fear of missing out. So their performances became legendary: the original FOMO experience. Still, only a talented group with their extensive catalog of original and modern American music could pull it off.
As the clock stuck midnight during their encore of the Beatles’ “Oh Darling,” local Deadheads kept swaying and grooving in front of the stage where permanent theater seats have been removed. It turns out this particular show replicated a 1990 Grateful Dead performance in Arizona. But who knew and who really cared? Sure, the night dragged on a bit with extended jams, a long break, and the beer refill/bathroom run-inducing Drums/Space. But the Dead’s magical pull was just as strong at the end as it was at the beginning about four hours earlier.
By then, Downtown SLO was a ghost town save for us adventurous, school night concertgoers chasing past glories.
:: Colin Jones