Veteran Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra launched their four-night New Year’s run at the newly-dubbed Franklin Music Hall (formerly the Electric Factory) in Philadelphia on Friday night. Generally in top form, the band smoothly played through a scorching setlist originally performed by the Grateful Dead at Oakland Coliseum Arena on December 28, 1987.
About 2,500 fans packed the smoky venue, and the atmosphere in the Franklin stayed energetic and upbeat throughout the show. The crowd started to boogie as soon as the band eased into the opening chords of “Feel Like a Stranger”. Following the staccato ending to “Stranger”, beloved three-chord jam “Franklin’s Tower” gave lead guitarist Jeff Matson some space to find his balance for the night. He did so in dramatic fashion, delivering soaring solos between verses. “New Minglewood Blues” followed, finding rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton busting out slide licks and giving renowned keyboardist Rob Barraco a chance to perform a standout organ solo.
The band slowed things down a bit with a masterful, sensitive take on “Row Jimmy”, then drew on Barraco’s powerful vocals to cover the Brent Mydland-written “Far From Me.” Eaton then led the band into one of the Dead’s favorite Bob Dylan covers, “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” before Mattson took the reins and steered the group right into an uptempo “Sugaree,” typical of the ‘87 era. The boys closed out their first set with a high-energy “Hell in a Bucket,” leaving the audience wanting more.
Sure enough, Dark Star came back onstage to deliver the dance tunes. They began their second set with a remarkably good “China Cat Sunflower”, which inevitably flowed into its neighbor “I Know You Rider.” This early combination had everyone dancing in the standing-room-only venue, and the band kept the romping good times going with a notable performance by bassist Skip Vangelas during a blazing “Cumberland Blues”.
That’s right! – “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” was up next, which kept the crowd standing and dancing right through the second-set staples of “Drums” and “Space”, which saw percussive theatrics from drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz. Emerging from the depths of “Space”, “The Wheel” would have been a major highlight of the show, with much of the audience belting the chorus of the familiar anthem. Yet, it found itself overshadowed by an absolutely flaming version of “Truckin’”, during which Mattson led the band to its highest peaks of the night before transitioning into a crawling, gritty take on the Howlin’ Wolf tune “Smokestack Lightning”.
The clock struck midnight as the band geared up for sad, bluesy “Black Peter” before closing out the second set with a smoking hot “Sugar Magnolia.” The last tune’s “Sunshine Daydream” outro had everyone on their feet once more, and held the crowd over as the band disappeared backstage. Reappearing for the encore a few moments later, Dark Star Orchestra finished the show with a beautiful, tender “Black Muddy River”, which proved a fine ending to an excellent show.
Dark Star Orchestra will finish their stand at the Franklin tonight (12/29) at 8:30 pm before heading up to play December 30 and 31 at 7 pm at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey.
Setlist: Dark Star Orchestra | Franklin Music Hall | Philadelphia, PA | 12/28/18
Set 1: Feel Like a Stranger, Franklin’s Tower, New Minglewood Blues, Row Jimmy, Far From Me, When I Paint My Masterpiece, Sugaree, Hell in a Bucket
Set 2: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Cumberland Blues, Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Drums > Space, The Wheel, Truckin’, Smokestack Lightning, Black Peter, Sugar Magnolia
Encore: Black Muddy River