One day after their sold-out 20th-anniversary show at the Palace Theater in Albany, Dark Star Orchestra began Year 21 at the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, New York. The half empty room, which was built in the 1930’s, provided the perfect space for the kids to dance and shake their bones on a Sunday night in Northern Westchester. The initial thought process behind the band’s concept when they formed in 1997 was to recreate the music of the Grateful Dead by mimicking entire shows song for song. Over their 20-year span, Dark Star Orchestra has also written their own material but created hand-picked setlists to throw the crowd for a loop and keep extreme Deadhead statisticians on their toes.
“Jack Straw” opened the show to thunderous applause from the audience but provided no clues as to which show Dark Star Orchestra planned on presenting for the evening. Taking the second spot of the set was “They Love Each Other,” which is another common first set entry. The first big clue for setlist veterans in the crowd came in the form of Brent Mydland’s “Never Trust A Woman,” an always reliable first-set blues number by the late, great band member. Rob Barraco channeled Mydland’s howling vocals and brought fans back to the 11-year period when the longest tenured Grateful Dead keyboardist frequently stole the show.
“Row Jimmy” allowed Jeff Mattson to summon Jerry on lead guitar before the iconic 90’s cat-and-mouse interplay (see Dozin’ at the Knick) between Skip Vangelas on bass and Barraco on piano toward the end of the somber ballad. After another sizzling vocal execution by Borraco during “Blow Away”, the show was looking more and more like a late-80s, early-90s copycat set. Lisa Mackey (filling in as Donna Godchaux) threw the first curveball of the set by singing a show-stopping “It Hurts Me Too”, which hadn’t been performed by the Grateful Dead since May of 1972. Everyone from the fans on the floor to the members on stage was awestruck by her crisp and passionate vocals that sounded more like Janis Joplin than Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. While “It Hurts Me Too” may have peeled the paint off the Paramount, a smoothly placed “Althea> Deal” combo dropped in as the set-ending highlight of the first half, generating enough energy for the Sunday crowd to get through a long break.
“Foolish Heart” off the Grateful Dead’s 1989 release Built to Last opened the second set with Mattson taking the lead on vocals. Another switch-up came during “Playing In The Band” when Mackey hopped on background vocals during the chorus. This phenomenon never happened during a show featuring Mydland-penned tunes, furthering the theory that the Orchestra had uniquely created Sunday’s set. “China Doll” eerily found its way into the seemingly haunted theater and lullabied the attentive audience into a dreamlike state.
A flawless transition into “Uncle John’s Band” got the entire crowd back on their feet for a community sing-along. The Workingman’s Dead studio version may have gotten thousands of hours of radio play over the years, but this extended psychedelic version gave extra meaning to the lyric “Won’t you come with me?” as the band took the small theater on an interstellar voyage. Right around the 10-minute mark of “Uncle John’s Band”, it appeared that the six-piece might finally land the spaceship—instead, they dove deeper into an extra spooky “Drums>Space”. Dino English and Rob Koritz have been imitating Billy and Mickey since the early days of Dark Star Orchestra, and their fantastic improvisational ability shined as throughout. Mydland’s spirit reentered the venue one last time as “Dear Mr. Fantasy” rose from the ashes of “Space”. The pensive and folkie “Black Peter” gave most of the attendees another chance to sit down before a rousing “Not Fade Away” closed the set.
Most of the note-takers in the audience were satisfied to discover that the show was in fact created just minutes before the band played the first notes of the evening. Rob Barraco announced that they originally planned on recreating the July 19th, 1990 show from the Deer Creek Music Center. However, due to nearly half of the band members experiencing health complications, they decided to make some adjustments. The five tunes replaced from the original Deer Creek show were “Desolation Row,” “Picasso Moon,” “Promised Land,” “Victim or the Crime,” and “All Along the Watchtower”—Rob Eaton’s non-existent voice and Jeff Mattson’s common cold on Sunday night prevented those songs from being sung, eventually spurring Mackey to come out of the bullpen for vocal relief. A little sickness couldn’t stop the band from rolling on, and in the spirit of setlist improvisation, they kept the vibe alive. The show ended with the summertime favorite “U.S. Blues” ahead of the show-closing “Mr. Charlie,” another setlist stumper that the Dead hadn’t played since May of 1972.
Dark Star Orchestra’s 20th Anniversary Tour continues truckin’ through the Northeast culminating at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia to ring in the New Year.
SETLIST: Dark Star Orchestra | Paramount Theater | Peekskill, NY | 11/12/2017
Set I: Jack Straw, They Love Each Other, Never Trust A Woman, Row Jimmy, Blow Away, It Hurts Me Too, Althea > Deal
Set II: Foolish Heart > Playing In The Band > China Doll > Uncle John’s Band > Drums > Space > Dear Mr. Fantasy > Black Peter > Not Fade Away
Encore: U.S. Blues, Mr. Charlie