Dark Star Orchestra has been treating fans to recreations of complete, originally highly improvised Grateful Dead shows, song by song in the same order in which they were first performed for the last two decades. In their 19 years the band has performed more than 2,600 shows, which is 300 more than the Grateful Dead did in their 30-year run.
I spoke with Jeff Mattson, lead guitarist/vocalist of the preeminent Dead tribute act, Dark Star Orchestra, ahead of their upcoming New Jersey show to discuss his connection to the music, his experiences playing alongside his musical heroes and what continues to inspire him night after night, year after year to pay homage to the legendary Grateful Dead.
You have been performing Grateful Dead music in tribute bands since 1979, starting with the Volunteers, then the Zen Tricksters, and now as lead guitarist and vocalist of Dark Star Orchestra.
I was even playing in Grateful Dead tributes before that! I probably started in ’76 or ’75 but that was the year my professional career began.
What first drew you to the Grateful Dead?
I took a Grateful Dead record out of the library back when people went to libraries. Workingman’s Dead, I think it was. I really liked it. Then I started slowly buying the records. American Beauty, the Skull and Roses record, and Europe ’72.
When was your first concert?
I didn’t get to see the Grateful Dead until 1973, which is quite a long time ago. I was about 15 and just completely blown away. I saw them at the Nassau Coliseum in the fall of 1973. Everything was different from the record. That’s off putting to some people, but that was really compelling to me. I said, “Oh. I get it. Everything is different. They’re making it up as they go along. It’s not a note for note type of deal.” I thought that was really exciting, because my father is a jazz musician. I grew up listening to improvisations and was attracted towards that type of expression. After that I was completely sold. I’ve been listening to and going to see the Grateful Dead ever since.
For The Aquarian Weekly readers who have not had the fortune of seeing the Grateful Dead or Dark Star Orchestra perform can you explain the energy behind the experience? Fans of both bands often attend hundreds of shows. Can you explain that phenomenon?
The thing about the Grateful Dead was that none of their shows were the same. The set list was different every night, everything from the songs to the context to the improvisation and the expression. It created this kind of adventure that made you not want to miss a night. It you went to see a band that played the same set every night with the same solos, how many nights would you go? You would say, “I saw this.” It would be like watching the same movie every night. You didn’t want to miss a show because you never knew what was going to happen. The band didn’t know either. They didn’t know what songs were going to really rock out or be exquisitely beautiful or get really spacey and interesting. That appealed to a certain audience who liked that adventure into the unknown.
Dark Star recreates sets but we don’t announce what they are. People don’t know what they’re going to get. On any given night we’ll do a show from 1989 and then the next night it’s from 1972. We try to be faithful to the arrangements and the instrumentations they used at the time, but still we’re improvising in real time like they did. Our show could be very different than their show. If their show was laid back, but we’re on that night it will be more high energy than the original show. People come, they don’t know what we’re going to play and we don’t know how we’re going to play or what’s going to happen so it still has that sense of adventure.
Then every third or fourth night we make up a set list of our own which can go in all kinds of unpredictable directions. Songs can be juxtaposed next to each other that have never been played back to back before with jams between them. We can experiment within their huge repertoire.
Talk to me about the process of determining which set list will be celebrated on any given night.
The recreation set list shows are actually planned out before the tour. If we have to change it for some reason we’re flexible, but it’s a complicated process. We don’t want to play the same thing we played the last time we were in town and we don’t want to play a lot of the same songs we played the night before or a lot of songs we are going to play the next night. It’s tricky. The other guitar player in the band, Rob Eaton, works hard to keep those things in play. Once in a while we might repeat a song or two from the night before because it’s just incredibly complicated, but we try to do as different a show as we can from night to night for the audience’s sake and for our own sake. It keeps it fun and interesting.
As far as the elective sets, seeing as how Rob Eaton and I sing the lion’s share of the songs, we usually put together those sets on the afternoon of the show. Again, we can deviate from it any time we want to, but so we don’t stand up there scratching our heads, we’ll make ourselves a plan. We also look to see what we haven’t played that much on the tour. Anybody else who wants to chime in and say, “Hey, I would like to sing this song,” or whatever that’s fine too.
Of all the Grateful Dead shows Dark Star Orchestra recreates, do you have one you enjoying performing most?
It’s fun to do a show you were at and have memories of. We do some shows from 1969 when the Dead were very primal and psychedelic. They were young and had tremendous energy and they were very high. It’s quite a workout and a different experience than playing a later show, especially for a bunch of guys in our forties and fifties. It’s tiring but satisfying. It’s a lot of fun. When we see that on the docket for the night we’re like, “Oh boy. Here we go!”
That’s fantastic! You have performed with Phil Lesh (bassist), Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann (drummer), Donna Jean Godchaux (vocalist), Vince Welnick, and Tom Constanten (keyboardist), of the Grateful Dead. What is it like performing alongside the legends that originally wrote the music?
Those are the highlights of my career. Aside from just being thrilling, if our musical heroes are willing to play with us it’s validation that we’re on the right path, that we’re playing the music in the right spirit. As a matter of fact, myself and Rob Eaton, and Rob Barraco the keyboard player are going out this weekend to Terrapin Crossroads in Marin County to play with Phil Lesh. I’m looking forward to that. It’s going to be fun.
Have you listened at all to Bob Weir’s new Blue Mountain album?
I have! I like it quite a bit. We were on tour and I regret that I didn’t get to see any of the shows. They came through and played The Capitol and Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, here in New York, but I didn’t get to go because I was out on the road. I’m really enjoying the album. I heard good things about the shows.
Do you have any plans of incorporating any of the Blue Mountain songs in your shows?
Sure. We occasionally do acoustic sets and I think those songs would fit in really nicely there. It’s kind of up to Rob Eaton who does the Bob Weir things if he’s moved enough. I’m going to encourage him to learn at least one or two.
What are your thoughts on John Mayer and Dead and Company?
Again, in the nature of being a touring musician I haven’t gotten to see Dead and Company, but I’ve just heard so many great things. So many people say Mayer has done his homework and that he really seems to understand and embrace the whole feeling behind playing Grateful Dead music. I’m encouraged there. When you first heard about it, it seemed unlikely, but it seems to have turned out well. I’m hoping to get to see them one of these days. I’ve watched some stuff on YouTube. It seems like he’s got it. And most important of all, they seem to be having a lot of fun. You don’t get the feeling or suspicion that maybe they’re playing together because they could make more money. It looks like everybody is having a real good time playing. That’s important to Grateful Dead music. When they were having fun is when they were at their best. I saw Jerry when he was in his decline and it was sad. You felt like, “Oh maybe he doesn’t really want to be here.” There would still be moments of brilliance. He was just that talented a man, but he was kind of far away in his opiate world or whatever. It was sad. To see everybody having a good time is much more compelling.
The music is one thing, but there’s something about the culture, about being at the shows. I’ve seen you guys perform a bunch, done a few of the Mountain Jam festivals at Hunter Mountain, got to see Phil Lesh and Bob Weir and there’s nothing quite like being there. Everyone feels lucky to be witnessing something totally unique; something no one will ever see exactly the same again. It’s magic.
I agree. Absolutely. So many people said that about the Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago and Santa Clara in 2015. People said the vibe in the audience, having the “Family” all back together and there for that reason was a wonderful experience. The music was almost secondary.
On Nov. 11 you guys are kicking off your 20th anniversary tour at the Wellmont Theater right here in Jersey. That night will also commemorate the first ever Dark Star Orchestra show, which took place 19 years ago. What is it like to be part of the force that is Dark Star Orchestra and to be so instrumental in keeping the spirit and tradition of the Grateful Dead alive?
I’ve only been in the band for six years, but there’s a very strong sense of continuity. Even though people have come and gone from the band, it’s been an ongoing concern for almost 20 years. There’s a strength that comes from playing 135 shows a year continuously. I feel like the band improves in leaps and bounds from year to year. Sometimes it has to do with people coming and going; you get a fresh energy in the band, but I think we’re all working on it. We’ve improved our game and we’re bringing a lot of energy night to night. The audience is excited about it. We’re bringing the experience of those shows and that sound from those eras to a lot of people who were too young to have been there the first time. They really appreciate that. I wouldn’t be so bold to say they’re getting the same experience as seeing the Grateful Dead in 1973, but it’s a pretty good representation of it. We work very hard at getting the details down to make it feel like those shows sounded and felt at the time.
Of all the places you perform do you have a favorite venue?
We play a lot of beautiful theaters. We do our Dark Star Jubilee every year in Ohio at a place called Legend Valley where we put on our own festival and we play a full show every night. We get to invite all these great bands to come up and play with us and sit in with us and we sit in with them. The audience is all our fans. We’re there for three days. That’s a lot of fun. The venue is nice but it doesn’t have much to do with the venue. It’s more about the setting.
The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester here is a wonderful place. I like playing close to home. The Paramount in Huntington turned out to be a beautiful theater. The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee is a great venue. The Fillmore in San Francisco is a great place. An off the beat one I like is Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. It’s been around since the ’20s. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys used to play there every week. You can feel the ghosts of all the great musicians who have played there over the years. The Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. All wonderful places.
Dead and Dark Star Orchestra fans are famous for marching to the beat of their own drum and for unabashedly letting their freak flags fly. What is one of the wildest things you have seen at your shows?
You would think with the thousands of shows I’ve played, that I would have a million stories to tell. New Year’s shows and at Jubilee we have stilt walkers and fire dancers and all kinds of crazy stuff, but I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for.
I’ve been to some of your shows and know what goes down. Your answer is more appropriate for print!
Crazy stuff happens. You know, that’s the funny thing about being a New Yorker; crazy stuff happens in New York so often that you start not to notice it.
Dark Star Orchestra will be playing the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ on Nov. 11, the Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn, NY on Nov. 14 and 15, Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, PA on Nov. 23, The Paramount in Huntington, NY on Nov. 25 and 26, and the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, PA on Dec. 30 and 31. For more information, go to darkstarorchestra.net.