Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, but his vibe will never die. The Dark Star Orchestra proved that once again at NYCB Theatre at Westbury last night, just as they did a few months ago at The Space in Westbury, and at The Paramount last New Year’s, and at Great South Bay before that, and so forth. To call DSO a cover band is to discount and discredit the sacred geometry of music. The Grateful Dead legacy is built on a series of angular relationships, where the players all connect at shifting angles, dancing in a sonic prism around one fully integrative sun spot – the music. This mandala of sound is there for all those who wish to contribute, and DSO’s alchemy is the next logical step in this endless “search for the sound.”
The Grateful Dead were the very first to acknowledge that their music was not their own. From the beginning, they gave it away for free. The taper mentality has since come full circle, downloading and piracy have sucked the life out of the recording industry. Only live music remains as a viable way to make a living as a musician- and the Dark Star Orchestra has their little niche of the market cornered.
Playing well over 100 shows a year and crisscrossing the map just like “the boys” did for four decades, DSO is re-interpreting the “Great American Songbook” as they fully embrace the reality that they are the authentic “second coming” of the Grateful Dead phenomenon. Some nights they do their own thing, rigging set lists from the Dead’s vast catalogue as they see fit. On other nights, they reach into the annals of history, plucking a specific show from the Dead’s inimitable touring career and replicating it in the sound and style of the time.
On Tuesday at Westbury, DSO went deep, pulling a four hour show from the Dead’s early “space cowboy” period. December 11, 1969 was one of those seminal nights that revealed the first incarnation of the Grateful Dead as a project in dangerous and thrilling transition, where their finger picking roots were starting to morph and meld with the time and space bending psychedelic aesthetic that defined the band as they came to prominence at the height of the Haight.
The song sequence from the show in question featured an eclectic mix of vintage Grateful Dead and lead guitarist (and Long Island native) Jeff Mattson took the packed house on a thrill ride of thunderous proportions throughout. Threading the needle from the subdued spaciness of “Dark Star” into the raucous celebration of “St. Stephen” and on to the serpentine polyrhythmia of “The Eleven,” eventually culminating in the shredded flameouts of white noise that signal the peak of “The Other One,” Mattson channeled the essence of early Garcia and amplified it to epic proportions. When DSO goes after it (which is pretty much all the time) you can’t help but feel Jerry smiling down on the entire proceeding. The magic is in good hands.
The beauty of it all is that DSO has no pretensions (and makes no apologies) about where they come from, what they’re doing and where they’re going. They simply step up, plug in, and play.
The rest is for us to enjoy. And in that humility, they embody the Grateful Dead yet again. They are merely conduits, messengers, musicians in the moment – and nothing more. And with that truism in mind, heart and spirit, they’ll do it all again tonight. For free.
The Dark Star Orchestra plays August 6th, at Tanner Park in Copaigue.