On Saturday night, Dark Star Orchestra finished up their two-night Philadelphia, PA run with a far-out, unique elective setlist at Franklin Music Hall (formerly the Electric Factory). The setlist harassed more improvisational components than the previous night’s, and the lack of historical basis kept the crowd guessing and engaged all the way through.

The band kicked off the show with “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and followed it up with a spirited “Black Throated Wind,” setting the stage for what many thought would be a ‘70s-era recreation. Lead guitarist Jeff Mattson then led the band into a romping guitar solo during “Ramble on Rose,” bending and arpeggiating his way through the first big singalong of the night.

Vocalist Lisa Mackey demonstrated her serious set of pipes during a rousing “Hurts Me Too,” in which she fiercely yet tenderly channeled Pigpen’s spirit. Her soulful harmonica solo even brought the old-timers in the back to their feet, where they stayed to applaud at the end of the song. The uptempo introduction to “Greatest Story Ever Told” immediately followed, with bassist Skip Vangelas adding necessary depth and layering to the song’s familiar descending turnaround.

The band cast off any doubts about their set being elective when they broke out Jerry Garcia’s arrangement of “Russian Lullaby,” featuring a virtuosic piano solo from keyboardist Rob Barraco. After “Lullaby,” rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton led the group into the fan-favorite “Cassidy” and orchestrated the first real bit of collective improvisation of the night.

Clearly the evening had dragged on long enough without any Bob Dylan tunes, and so the band chose this point to break into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a welcoming surprise to many in the audience. As the Dylan cover disintegrated into tremolos and drum rolls, the first chords of “Let It Grow” emerged from the noise, to the loudest cheers of the evening. After an intense performance of the Bob Weir staple, the band left the stage for their set break.

Dark Star Orchestra returned to the stage to start the second set with a powerfully delivered rendition of “Foolish Heart,” bolstered by Barraco’s faithful employment of Mydland-style piano, during an absolutely glorious outro. The band followed this up with an energetic, albeit short, take on the Steve Winwood hit “Gimme Some Lovin’”, before delivering their second singalong classic of the night, “Uncle John’s Band.”

Following “Uncle John’s Band,” the boys settled into a particularly funky, rousing “Corrina”, which kept everybody on their feet. Up next in a set full of surprises, the band attacked “Alligator” with the fervor and syncopated chaos of the early Grateful Dead. From “Alligator,” drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz pounded their way into a standout, captivating “Drums” before the rest of the band returned to take the crowd out into “Space.”

Out of a truly wild “Space,” the band came thundering back into “Alligator”, with an extended jam that saw Mattson’s soloing peak for the night, before they settled once more into the outro of “Uncle John’s Band.” Following this nearly hourlong compilation, the band eased into a simply beautiful performance of “China Doll” that stunned the audience into an awed silence from the opening notes to the soft ending. With the softness of “China Doll” fading, the band shocked the crowd back into the show with the dissonant first chord of “Viola Lee Blues,” their set closer, which would prove the evening’s most expansive vehicle for their improvisational jamming. After boisterous applause, the band came back out for an explosive “Mr. Charlie” encore to cap their time in the City of Brotherly Love.

While some fans were undoubtedly disappointed by the band’s decision to play an elective set rather than a historical show, the setlist the band did play showcased their collective ability to emulate and thrive within radically different sounds and styles from throughout the history of the Grateful Dead.

Dark Star Orchestra will ring in the New Year tonight, December 31st at Monclair, NJ’s Wellmont Theater.

Setlist: Dark Star Orchestra | Franklin Music Hall | Philadelphia, PA | 12/29/2018

Set 1: Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodeloo, Black Throated Wind, Ramble on Rose, Hurts Me Too, Greatest Story Ever Told, Russian Lullaby, Cassidy, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Let It Grow

Set 2: Foolish Heart, Gimme Some Lovin’, Uncle John’s Band, Corrina, Alligator, Drums > Space, China Doll, Viola Lee Blues

Encore: Mr. Charlie