Dark Star Orchestra casts its love-light on Grateful Dead

Dark Star Orchestra plays the Boulder Theater March 26-28. (Musical Earth / Courtesy photo)
Dark Star Orchestra plays the Boulder Theater March 26-28. (Musical Earth / Courtesy photo)

By Quentin Young

This is a momentous year for the Grateful Dead.

The seminal rock enterprise and inexhaustible cultural force was founded in San Francisco in 1965, and the band is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015. As if to increase the year’s commemorative weight, the band announced that its original surviving members plan to play a set of farewell concerts in July at Chicago’s Soldier Field, site of the last show they played with bandmate Jerry Garcia, who died 20 years ago.

The shows represent an end for the Grateful Dead, but they also mark a beginning of sorts for the hundreds of bands that populate the Dead community, the Dark Star Orchestra primary among them.

“It raises awareness of the Grateful Dead,” said Jeff Mattson, guitarist and singer for DSO. More awareness of the Dead’s music means more interest in bands that play it.

The DSO is coming to Boulder for three shows, March 26-28, at the Boulder Theater. That a Grateful Dead tribute band can play a market three nights in a row and that its members seem not to be bored with the music after years of performing the music speaks to the enduring quality and infinite interpretative possibilities of the material. It surprises even Mattson, who is 56 and has been listening to the Dead longer than many DSO fans have been alive.

“I wouldn’t have predicted 20 years ago that it would still be such a strong scene with so many young people involved,” he said.

Mattson believes it’s largely the malleability of the music that keeps everyone’s interest — including his own.

“If I had to play the same notes every night, I would have dropped out a long time ago,” Mattson said. “I don’t play or sing every time the same way … I’m going to start the solo in a way I never had before and just go for it.”

There’s also the sheer passion the Dead’s fans feel for the music in the first place, and Boulder has plenty of those kinds of fans. Their support for DSO is rewarded in that a band performs better when it gets to drop anchor for several nights, Mattson said.

“It’s nice to not have to travel for three nights,” he said, adding that the setup process for each new venue can be “disorienting.” “If there’s an element of comfort, then you get that out of the way, and you can really focus on the playing.”

Dark Star has become the most prominent Grateful Dead tribute act in the country. Mattson’s predecessor, John Kadlecik, went on to become a regular touring member of bands led by the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. Mattson started as the guitarist for the longtime New York-based jam band the Zen Tricksters, and he also has gotten to play with Grateful Dead members, including when he was hired for a three-night run in 1999 with Lesh’s band at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco.

“Getting to play with these guys is the highlight of my career,” Mattson said. He added that at one point he thought to himself, ” ‘This guy really plays like Phil Lesh. Oh, wait, it is Phil Lesh.’ ”

DSO’s trademark method is to re-create a given Grateful Dead show from the band’s vast and meticulously documented catalogue of live performances. That’s partly what makes a three-night run at the Boulder Theater possible — fans can come all three nights and never hear the same thing twice.

DSO is based in Chicago. But Mattson lives in Long Island, N.Y., and doesn’t plan to see the final Dead shows.

“I personally plan to be playing somewhere,” he said.

Quentin Young: quentin@dailycamera or on Twitter @qpyoungnews

If you go

What: Dark Star Orchestra

When: 8:30 p.m. March 26-28

Where: Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder

Cost: $25 advance; $30 show

More info: bouldertheater.com

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