Gratefully Undead

Keep on shining: Dark Star Orchestra has been playing Grateful Dead songs for half as long as the original band.

For 30 years, The Grateful Dead stood as the most revered jam band in existence, and their importance to that culture is hard to overstate. They are an archetype, a source of influence and a standard of judgment for every band that operates in their ilk. They led thousands of Dead Heads from show to show, fostering the sense of welcoming community that sticks to jam bands like the resin at the bottom of a bowl.

Upon his death in 1995, Jerry Garcia entered the accepted pantheon of classic rock saints. Critics can (and should) quibble about the quality of the Dead’s output, but their legacy is unimpeachable.

For 15 years, that legacy has been honored by the Dark Star Orchestra. One of the most enduring tribute bands in existence today, Dark Star has been playing Grateful Dead songs for half as long as the Dead did themselves. Even with a stash as evergreen as the Dead’s, it’s hard to believe that an ensemble wouldn’t burn out after a decade and a half spent playing another group's songs. Guitarist Jeff Mattson laughs off such concerns.

We just really think that they’re wonderful songs, and they’re designed to be fun to play,” he says. He’s only been in the band for two and a half years, but he’s known the Orchestra’s other members for a long time. He’s also no stranger to Grateful Dead covers as his other band Zen Tricksters incorporate them into their sets frequently.

You never know what’s going to come out really great and maybe not so great. It’s not like, say, a Beatles cover band, where they’re trying to sound exactly like the album, which is a great thing. I’ve seen some really great bands do that. But we get to improvise in real time all the time, so it really keeps it fresh and fun. It’s just a whole realm of possibilities, and then there’s the open spaces between songs, which is really just collective improvisations that are completely unique to that night and might be nothing like what the Grateful Dead did. When you’re all improvising together, it’s going to come out the way it does.”

Mattson says the group’s continued interest in the Dead has a lot to do with its approach. Dark Star doesn’t put on hit-fueled performances with note-for-note copies of studio versions. For most shows, the Orchestra recreates specific Grateful Dead sets, looking at the list of songs they played that night and working through them in the way the players feel best lives up to the spirit of the original performance.

What’s interesting about it is we’re picking from all these different eras of Grateful Dead history,” Mattson says. “The band evolved, so any given night we’re playing in the style of that era. The challenge is to get all the arrangements and the vocals and all the little details right, and the instrumentation and the tones and drums set up right for that particular period and to sort of capture the vibe of that era in Grateful Dead history without actually replicating the notes they play. The music is very improvisatory, so we’re still picking the notes we play. It’s just all about the peripheral stuff that nails it down. It’s an interesting challenge, and you sort of get sucked into the groove of playing that night’s set-list era.”

The improvisational elements ensure that Dark Star leaves its imprint on these songs. After all, it would be impossible to directly replicate the sets that were never recorded. But more than just enjoying the instrumental interplay, Dark Star puts a premium on maintaining the welcoming community that made the Dead so popular. It’s an idea the outfit will take a step further at the end of August when Dark Star curates its first music festival, the three-day Dark Star Jubilee in rural Ohio. With three former members of the Dead set to perform as well as other like-minded acts, the Orchestra hopes it will be a rewarding celebration.

Our audience is made up of a lot of people who were there for the original experience and then a lot of younger people who never had the chance,” Mattson explains. “For the older people, it’s a way of recapturing that feeling of community and communion with the music and the band. For the younger people, it’s the possibility of experiencing what that must have felt like.”

— Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.

who: Dark Star Orchestra
what: Grateful Dead tribute
where: Pisgah Brewing
when: Friday and Saturday, Aug. 3 and 4 (7 p.m. tickets and VIP passes available, from $22.50 to $75. Full info online at

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