Dark Star Orchestra Encapsulates the Live Experience of the Grateful Dead

Photo by Susana Millman
Dark Star Orchestra lead guitarist Jeff Mattson (third from the left): "We're like a family."
Journey back to a Grateful Dead show in the '70s and you'd witness thousands of hippies, or "Deadheads," dancing freely while the band jammed to a special mix of psychedelia, bluegrass, and space rock. Born from the San Francisco Acid Tests of the '60s, the counterculture following the Grateful Dead and its live shows led the group to go down in history as one of America's favorite jam bands. Although the 1995 death of its frontman, Jerry Garcia, seemed to have ended an era, tribute band Dark Star Orchestra stepped up to famously continue the unique live experience of the Grateful Dead's music.

Since its founding in 1997 in Chicago, Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) has encapsulated the Grateful Dead era for more than 2,800 shows. The band has featured guest performances from original Dead members such as Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay, and Vince Welnick. This Saturday, November 3, DSO is set to headline Revolution Live's new street festival, Night of the Dead, celebrating Día de los Muertos with mariachi performers, calavera puppets, family-friendly art activities, and other diversions.

DSO lead guitarist Jeff Mattson's experiences with the music of the Grateful Dead led him on a journey of his own. His musician father introduced a young Mattson to jazz, but he gravitated more toward the jam style of the Dead and eventually experienced his first live show as a teen in 1973 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in his hometown of Long Island. "They didn't play songs the same way they were on the records, and... it was different every night," Mattson remembers. "I was just blown away by it, and it started me on this odyssey."

Even after 40 years of playing the Dead's music, Mattson still finds it fun, particularly in performing the iconic band's diverse and extensive catalogue. "You don't play it the same way every night," he says. "They're great songs, but they're also set up to be vehicles of improvisation."

To re-create the feeling of a Grateful Dead show, DSO carefully curates its gear, vocal arrangements, tones, and set lists to emulate the essence of the Dead during a specific time. "We're still improvising appropriately to the style of the period, but we're not copying the notes. That would be very time-consuming and against the spirit of what the music is," Mattson explains.

"The original idea was to create nostalgia for people who used to go see the Grateful Dead," he continues. The music and culture of the Dead continue to thrive as people, young and old, are still being turned on to it today. "What's really happened over the years is that a large percentage of people weren't even around to see the Grateful Dead when they existed, so for them it's a way to experience what it was like in real time... and be part of the audience."

All of the current members of Dark Star Orchestra have been Deadheads for years, so it's no surprise their familiarity with the music has made it easier to learn the often intricate details of the music, such as jams and guitar solos that often extend beyond 15 minutes. "We're like a family," Mattson says. The seven-person band lives on a tour bus traveling across the United States for performances.

Although music has surely evolved since the '60s, the sounds of the Grateful Dead seem to withstand the test of time through a thriving jam-band scene, and Dark Star Orchestra continues to keep the Deadhead culture alive. To listeners just discovering the music of the Grateful Dead, Mattson says, "Boy, you're in for a treat, and if you want to get an idea of what it was like to see a show, come see Dark Star Orchestra."

Dark Star Orchestra. With Galactic and Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio. 3 p.m. Saturday, November 3, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; Tickets cost $25 to $85 via