The festive holiday season at the famed Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY came to a close with a two-night NYE run by Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra over the weekend. DSO is not only the most prolific cover band honoring the forefathers (and mother) of the jam band scene but may very well be the most talented bunch to cover any band in the United States. The band recreates Grateful Dead setlists from history or serves up an “elective” set of favorites chosen by Dark Star Orchestra.

The current incarnation of DSO is Rob Eaton (rhythm guitar, vocals), Dino English (drums), Rob Koritz (drums), Lisa Mackey (vocals), Jeff Mattson (guitar, vocals), Skip Vangelas (bass, vocals) and Rob Barraco (keys). The band’s first show was on January 11th, 1997 in Chicago, IL. The band originally formed when two Chicago musicians, Scott Larned (keyboards/vocals) and John Kadlecik (guitar/vocals) had a similar idea to perform entire historic Grateful Dead setlists as a tribute to the band’s incredible legacy. They initially convinced the promoter at Martyrs’ to give them four Tuesday nights to test out their idea to see if it had legitimacy…and the first week there were under 100 people, but by week four, the place was sold out. Fast forward a little over a quarter of a century, and Dark Star Orchestra has played roughly 3,200 shows and eclipsed the 2,340 estimated concerts the Dead performed in their long and storied career.

Before Saturday’s show, I sat down with DSO lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist, Jeff Mattson for a quick Q&A session:

Live For Live Music: What show have you recreated the most and why?

Jeff Mattson: I’m really not sure. I’d have to ask our drummer Dino English as he keeps the statistics on that sort of thing. I can recall playing some of the more famous shows a few times such as Veneta, OR 8/27/72 and Barton Hall 1977 to mark special occasions. There are so many interesting shows though, it keeps us inspired.

Live For Live Music: You normally play that shiny blue guitar—what kind are you normally using?

Jeff Matson: Actually that guitar, a Warmoth guitar assembled by Brad Sarno is kind of retired now although it will make an appearance next week in Jamaica. My main guitar these days is Woolly Mammoth, a Doug Irwin-style guitar built by Leo Elliot of Scarlet Fire Guitars and gifted to me by the Grateful Guitar Foundation. It is a real work of art. The inlays are made from real mammoth tusk! I also have a couple of Stratocasters, a couple of Travis Beans, a Rick Turner-built Peanut guitar, and a D’Angelico.

L4LM: What was it like playing Jerry Garcia’s Alligator for your European tour that he used for all of Europe ‘72?

JM: I didn’t play the real Alligator on our Europe tour. The insurance to haul it around Europe was prohibitively high. I have had many opportunities to play the real Alligator including its first return to the stage since Jerry put it down. This was several years ago at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. For the Europe tour once more it was the Grateful Guitar Foundation’s Andy Logan to the rescue. He supplied me with a beautiful Alligator replica built by 8WEST Guitars which he later gifted me.

L4LM: Did it inspire you?

JM: There is nothing quite like playing the real Alligator. It just has a certain sound [that I love]. It has mojo from all the amazing shows Jerry played on that guitar. When I was a teenager I had two posters on my bedroom wall of Jerry playing that guitar. I never dreamed I would get to play it!

L4LM: Who are your heroes/influences?

JM: As far as guitar players, aside from the obvious Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir I love Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder, Mark Knopfler, Clarence White, Doc Watson, Lowell George, and so many more. I listen to all kinds of music and it all inspires me in different ways. I’d have to mention Miles Davis too.

L4LM: What inspired you when you were first playing/How did you get your start?

JM: My dad was a bebop trumpet player. So I grew up hearing improvised music. It seemed the most natural thing to me to improvise. As I started playing guitar, I gravitated toward the bands that featured lots of improvisation: Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, etc.

L4LM: What do you most look forward to?

JM: Touring can be a rough life, but those four hours on stage make the other 20 hours each day worth it.

L4LM: Why do you think the Grateful Dead catalog has lasted the test of time?

JM: Because the songs are great and timeless, and there is so much room for personal expression within the songs.

L4LM: Question I randomly ask every person I interview: What is your favorite guitar solo from any band’s studio cut?

JM: There are so many, but the one that jumps to my head at this very moment is the short, quasi-classical instrumental in the middle of Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road”.

At approximately 8:07 p.m. the band took the stage and we heard the familiar bass chords of the traditional “Cold Rain and Snow” which seemed apropos considering the frigid temperature outside. A bouncy and quick “Big River” followed into a paint-by-numbers “They Love Each Other”.

Concertgoers could be heard wondering aloud, “Is this a recreated setlist or an elective?” When “Cassidy” commenced, I was excited to know that this show was indeed a recreation of the 6/17/76 performance at that other Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ. With such a stacked and incendiary setlist, those in the know were cognizant that we were in for a treat.

“Cassidy” was tight and the band was on point in playing the John Perry Barlow-penned classic. In 2007, I interviewed Barlow, my friend, and asked, “Of all the songs you have written, which one are you most proud of?” He immediately and matter-of-factly exclaimed, “Cassidy”.

Highlights from the first set included the up-tempo ditty, “The Music Never Stopped” with its palpable energy reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium 1990 when it was shared amid a raging rain storm. Lisa Mackey showed off her dance moves during the lengthy jam. Fully immersed in the sounds, she wears headphones so she can hear the other members of the band’s vocals and instruments. Each musician has their own mix to hear who they want at a certain volume. The bouncy and dream-like “Scarlet Begonias” stood out in this particularly rare late-first set location while Skip laid down frequent bombastic beats with his bass axe as Mackay hooted and hollered toward its conclusion.

The Capitol Theatre is a special place to see the Grateful Dead. It was a favorite venue of Garcia and they performed there 18 times in 1971 alone. The vast and varied catalog of the Grateful Dead is chock full of epic tunes and the monster second set saw many.

From the Blues for Allah album released one year prior to the 6/17/76 show, “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot” was delivered in an impressively tight fashion with Mattson providing a smooth segue into a raucous “Franklin’s Tower”. A ’70s-style disco version of “Dancing in the Street” followed which served as a proper impetus for the sold-out crowd, 1,800 strong, to get their dancing shoes on in unison.

A slow version of fan favorite “Friend of the Devil” came before “Let it Grow” which included a long interplay between band members as they pulled off a lively jam. “Wharf Rat” concluded with a harmony on the “The good Lord willing” section that rivaled some of the brightest and smoothest performances from the original band. There was not an encore during the original 1976 performance so as filler DSO had Skip lead the band in a fun frolic amidst a “Box of Rain”.

After an engaging and inspired night of Grateful Dead music, one could conclude yet again one thing: if you’re one of the people out there who find Dead & Company too slow and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead too fast, there’s a band out there that’s serving it up “just right.” Now in its 27th year of existence, Dark Star Orchestra continues to deliver the impeccable Grateful Dead experience with no signs of slowing down.

DSO will commence its 11th Jam in the Sand festival in Jamaica from January 9th–12th. The band has also announced a winter West Coast Winter Tour and two festival appearances so far: Skull & Roses in Ventura, CA in April, and the 11th annual Dark Star Jubilee—at the same site as the Buckeye Lake Music Center (now known as Legend Valley) where the Grateful Dead played for over 60,000 fans in the late ’80s and early ’90s. For tickets and a full list of tour dates visit the band’s website.

Check out a gallery of images from Dark Star Orchestra at The Capitol Theatre below courtesy of photographer Alison Hartwell.

Dark Star Orchestra – “Friend Of The Devil” – 12/30/23 – Partial

[Video: Andrew G]

Dark Star Orchestra – “Wharf Rat” – 12/30/23 – Partial

[Video: Andrew G]

Dark Star Orchestra – The Capitol Theatre – Port Chester, NY – 12/30/23 – Full Audio

[Audio: Steve Gravel]

Setlist: Dark Star Orchestra | The Capitol Theatre | Port Chester, NY | 12/30/23

Set One: Cold Rain And Snow, Big River, They Love Each Other, Cassidy, Tennessee Jed, Looks Like Rain, Row Jimmy, The Music Never Stopped, Scarlet Begonias, Promised Land

Set 2: Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower > Dancing In The Street > Samson And Delilah, Ship Of Fools, Lazy Lightnin’ > Supplication, Friend Of The Devil, Let It Grow > Drums > Let It Grow > Wharf Rat > Around And Around

Encore: Box Of Rain