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.)
This post contains affiliate links. You will not pay extra for products purchased through those links, but we will earn a small commission from the sale, which helps us provide this website as a free resource to you.
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.”
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.)
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.”
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-
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.
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.
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 site is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for Music Fest Fans to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. You will not pay any extra for these products and we earn a small commission to help support this free website.