Dark Star Orchestra Honors Robert Hunter at The Sylvee

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Five days after the passing of Robert Hunter, Dark Star Orchestra delivered an emotional performance, which they dedicated to the late Grateful Dead lyricist, at The Sylvee in Madison, WI. We were honored to be there.

Dark Star Orchestra is more than just a Grateful Dead tribute band – they recreate entire shows, capturing all the jams and nuances of the original. They don’t tell ahead of time which performance they’re replicating, so everyone gets a surprise. (At the end of the article I’ll tell you which one they did for us, with a link to the setlist.)

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Aging hippies
I knew right away…

Floor seating was general admission, so Lisa and I got there early and scored some front-and-center territory. Since we arrived more than an hour before the show, we had time to talk to our fellow Deadheads. One guy who had a little more than a touch of grey said, “You two look old enough to have seen the real Grateful Dead.”

We are. And we have.

As is often the case, some of them talked about seeing a DSO show and at some point realizing that they’d been to the original Dead concert that DSO was reproducing. One noteworthy mention was a guy who saw The Dead at Red Rocks, and years later saw DSO perform the same show – also at Red Rocks. “I had one of those flashes like I’d been there before.”

Set 1

Dark Star Orchestra got the “Good Times” rolling with a Sam Cooke cover, followed by a nice version of “Shakedown Street” that included a hefty jam starting around the 8-minute mark. (Side note: Before the show, we were talking to a guy who mentioned that “Shakedown Street” is his favorite song. By a nice coincidence, Lisa captured a video of it.)

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart. Just gotta poke around.

After “Shakedown” and “Walkin’ Blues,” they slowed the pace with an emotional “To Lay Me Down,” after which one of the band members said, “That’s for Robert Hunter.” A few songs later, DSO closed out the first set with a lively “Let it Grow.”

Skip Vangelas
Skip Vangelas

Set 2

The band returned to the stage with a rousing “Bertha” and never let up from there, playing a rocking set that included a jam-heavy “Truckin'” and a vibrant but not too trippy “Drums/Space.” The set wrapped up with “Dear Mr. Fantasy” that segued into the “Naaaa-naaaanaaaananananaaaa” ending of “Hey Jude,” followed up by a shining version of “Turn on Your Love Light.”

 Rob Barraco
Rob Barraco


When the band returned for the encore, keyboardist Rob Barraco said, “Every note we play tonight is for Robert Hunter, because without him, we wouldn’t be here.” He then mentioned that the show we were seeing was originally performed by The Dead on September 8, 1988. Backup singer Lisa Mackey joined the band as they performed “Black Muddy River,” Hunter’s introspection about life and death, which left us all with a chill.

As they were about to leave the stage, lead guitarist Jeff Mattson had a surprise in store. He grinned and played the intro to “Honky Tonk Women.” The rest of the musicians just laughed, shrugged “Okay,” and performed the Stones classic, ending the show on a happy note.

Rob Eaton and Jeff Mattson
Rob Eaton and Jeff Mattson

The Voices

For nearly 25 years, I’ve heard other bands perform Grateful Dead songs, and while many competent musicians are capable of imitating the music, I’d never heard anyone whose voice captured the emotion and vulnerability of Jerry Garcia’s vocals. Until now, that is. Jeff Mattson not only plays Garcia-style lead guitar, but his voice is hauntingly similar to Jerry’s. Rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton sounds a lot like Bob Weir, too. (In fact, he sounds more like Weir than Bobby himself these days.) And if that’s not enough, Rob Barraco channeled the late Brent Mydland, especially when he took the lead vocals on Dear Mr. Fantasy/Hey Jude.

We’ve seen Dead and Company twice and while we enjoyed both performances, they are, for all practical purposes, a Grateful Dead tribute band, three original members notwithstanding. We’ve also seen Live Dead 69, and I can honestly say that Dark Star Orchestra is the best Grateful Dead tribute band I’ve heard. Put them on your “must-see” list.

Here’s the DSO setlist.

Robert Hunter with Jerry Garcia
Robert Hunter with Jerry Garcia (Photo by Jay Blakesberg)

And let’s raise a toast to the recently-departed Robert Hunter, whose lyrics serve as the foundation of the Grateful Dead phenomenon.

May the four winds blow you safely home.”

This one’s for Robert Hunter

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