The preppy hippies of Princeton, New Jersey rejoiced on Monday night as Grateful Dead tribute outfit Dark Star Orchestra came truckin’ into town. With each of the historic McCarter Theatre’s 1,100 seats filled, the band revived the Grateful Dead’s performance at Oakland Coliseum on February 27th, 1990.
The band started off swinging with “Let the Good Times Roll”, a solid opening performance despite some timing and vocal pitch issues likely related to an amended sound system. Like a train gaining momentum, they next launched into a “Feel Like a Stranger” that really warmed them up, its syncopated riffs forcing the band to tackle their sound head-on. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Rob Eaton belted out the verses over the psychedelic din.
Lead guitarist and vocalist Jeff Mattson took the lead next on an uptempo “Sugaree”, which the band followed with the stomping rhythm of “Victim or the Crime”. After a short lull, they slipped into “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, capped by the lovely singalong Dead fans have come to love, no matter how far from the Rio Grande they might be.
The band brought some folksy funk to central Jersey with the next tune, Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Mattson finally led the band through a climactic jam on “Bird Song”, supported strongly by bassist Skip Vangelas, to end the first set.
A family reunion-style set break made time pass quickly, and soon the band retook the stage. After a brief percussive warmup, drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz led the band into a romping “Iko Iko”. This crowd favorite finished with a hard stop before quickly transforming into “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)”, which shares its signature rhythmic emphasis with its setlist neighbor. The energetic organ playing from Rob Barraco proved the highlight of this tune.
The band slowed things down with a crisp and soulful “Standing on the Moon”, the sentimental Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter tune which turned the spinners into swayers. It seemed as if the moment just before the final note would last forever. Soon the familiar tickle of the intro to “Truckin’” brought everyone back into the present and out of their seats just in time to get down to the funky groove of “Spoonful”.
The meandering depths of the “Drums/Space” that followed soon gave way to a psychedelic “The Other One”, manic in its melodies and hypnotizing in its rhythms. From this chaos eventually emerged the clear and unmistakable notes of “Morning Dew”, which brought the band out of the dark and into the light in an intense performance complemented greatly by Barraco’s soaring organ textures and Mattson’s tender vocals.
A raucous “Throwing Stones” followed, further energizing the dancing crowd before Mattson, Eaton, and Barraco all lent their vocal powers to an explosive “Not Fade Away” to end the second set. At last, “We Bid You Goodnight” provided a satisfying encore to an intimate yet energetic show for Deadheads ranging from broke to bougie.
You can catch Dark Star Orchestra tonight, Tuesday, May 21st, 2019, in Buffalo, NY at the Town Ballroom. For a full list of Dark Star Orchestra’s upcoming tour dates, head to their website here.
Setlist: Dark Star Orchestra | McCarter Theatre | Princeton, NJ | 5/20/19
Set One: Let the Good Times Roll, Feel Like A Stranger, Sugaree, Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo, When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bird Song
Set Two: Iko Iko, Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Standing On the Moon, Truckin’, Spoonful, Drums/Space, The Other One, Morning Dew, Throwing Stones, Not Fade Away
Encore: We Bid You Goodnight
Notes: Recreating 2/27/90 at Oakland Coliseum