When you come across the Grateful Dead, and open your mind to the music, it can have a profound effect on you.
Back when the band was still an ongoing concern, and guitarist Jerry Garcia was still among us, stumbling into the Dead and falling beneath the band's sway meant spending your summer following the group around. Every show was different, after all, every night a new set list promising unlimited emotional returns, and the people you met from night to night became your extended family. The whole thing was like Ken Kesey's Technicolor bus reborn, a Kerouac-inspired ride across the country and into the mystic.
Then Garcia died, and the community collapsed inward upon itself. The guitarist had been the center of the band's gravitational pull, the captain of its sea-tossed ship. So many guitarists can make some sort of statement, but Garcia was different -- he wove some sort of spell with his long-form improvisations and, at its best, his playing was positively transportational.
When the Dead's "Merry Prankster" bus screeched to a halt, and its load of passengers was discharged back out into the world, many were left with a pang of emptiness. Nothing else sounded quite like the Dead. Sure, there was Phish, and a rapidly exploding jam band scene. But it just wasn't the same. Dead Heads wandered around in a bit of a daze, which wasn't unusual, of course. But this time, they weren't smiling. It was all a "major bummer, man."
Dark Star Orchestra -- named after the Dead tune, the spacey piece that, in a way, launched the Dead ship away from its jug-band roots and straight toward the heart of the sun -- is one of many Grateful Dead-covering bands to have emerged in the wake of Garcia's passing. It has little in common with the hundreds of other Dead tribute acts out there, though. Countless bands play the Dead's material, some of them quite well. (In Buffalo, there are a few great Dead-based bands, among them Sonic Garden and the Maniacs.)
Most of the minstrels interested in digging into the Dead, and making a few bucks along the way, will learn the chords to, say, "Playing in the Band," and then use that structure as a vehicle for improvisation and discovery. This is essentially what the Dead did from night to night, and able musicians are capable of conjuring the scruffy elegance of the dynamic Dead interplay.
Dark Star Orchestra takes it all a few steps further.
Since emerging five years back as a formidable force of the post-Dead jam-band scene, DSO has transcended the mere "tribute band" tag to become a full-on Grateful Dead repertory theater on wheels, a traveling re-enactment of peak moments in the Dead's concert career.
The Dead set the ball rolling on fan-friendly concert recording policies. Dead Heads started trading their own bootleg recordings on cassette tape more than 30 years ago, witlessly prefiguring the digital downloading and file-sharing movements that their utopian take on intellectual property -- developed with the band's full blessing -- would ultimately give birth to a few decades later. Dead "boots" made the rounds among the initiated, and certain shows -- June 1969 at the Fillmore West, or maybe Providence, R.I., in 1981, for example -- became more revered than the band's actual studio recordings.
The Dead as an entity realized the great power of all of this and thus launched the "From the Vault" and "Dick's Picks" series, both of which compiled specific shows from different periods of the band's history, in their entirety. Dark Star Orchestra took this "personal playlist" idea one step further. The group learned these specific shows in their entirety, staying faithful to the set list, the tempos of the tunes, the flavor and harmonic structure of the improvisational sections -- even the specific equipment Dead guitarists Garcia and Bob Weir were using at the time.
That the band members actually look and sound almost exactly like the Dead is almost creepy, so uncanny are the resemblances. For Dead Heads, it's as close as they're ever going to get to the genuine experience -- whether or not they were actually there the first time around. Still, this is no mere matter of rehashing past glories; DSO makes its own mark on the music, adding its own particular accents to the ongoing Dead music dialogue.
None of this will bring Garcia back. But if you close your eyes and listen.
Dark Star Orchestra plays the Town Ballroom at 8 p.m. Monday. For more information, go to www.townballroom.com.
Get in touch with Jeff via the Miers on Music blog at www.buffalonews.com, or e-mail him at email@example.com