Felton Music Hall kicked off their summer music series at Roaring Camp Railroad in Felton, California (Santa Cruz County) in a BIG way on Friday. The series boasts upcoming performances by Ozomatli, ALO, John Craigie, Taj Mahal, The Brothers Comatose, and many more over the span of weekly shows that started May 7th, and will continue through the end of July with Greensky Bluegrass. What Felton Music Hall has done with this series is safely present live music in a truly stunning setting. The shows are socially distanced with the audience set into grouped pod spots (roped off sections for people to dance in) at which they can order food and drinks and have them delivered straight to their pod by happy, smiling staff members. The concert series opened with a serious exclamation point this past Friday with Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) playing a full three-night run of shows.
When we think of Grateful Dead cover bands in existence today, the sheer number of them is staggering. But DSO is, in this writer’s opinion, the pinnacle – a serious cut above. This band approaches the Dead canon with such study, care, precision, love and passion, that one could say that if you close your eyes at a DSO show, for a moment, you might forget you’re hearing a cover band. For those not in the know, DSO chooses an actual Grateful Dead show played over the Dead’s (with Jerry) thirty-year career and replicates the setlist – not the music note for note – but the setlist. The band also does not disclose the date of the original show they are playing until around the beginning of the encore. This allows discerning deadheads the opportunity to look at the number of band members that night (which does fluctuate given the show replication), listen to the songs as they come along and ultimately guess what show the band is playing. It’s kind of a game.
On May 7th, with Rob Eaton (guitar, vocals), Dino English (drums), Rob Barraco (keyboards), Jeff Matson (guitar, vocals), Lisa Mackey (vocals, harmonica), and Skip Vangelas (bass, vocals) as their lineup, those adept at looking for hints could already have a vague idea of the time period as a second drum kit was clearly missing which narrowed date possibilities.
Another and even more impressive hint that delighted the eyes of discerning deadheads was the presence of Jerry Garcia’s original Fender Strat “Alligator” sitting up on stage. Garcia had received the guitar from Graham Nash as a thank you for Garcia’s work on Nash’s album, Songs For Beginners. Alligator, after being heavily modified, became Garcia’s main guitar from mid-1971 to 1973 (and was used heavily during the band’s storied 1972 tour of Europe, memorialized with the band’s live release, Europe ‘72). Long story short, deadhead and guitar collector Andy Logan, who currently owns Alligator, brought the axe to DSO for Jeff Matson to play for the show (this is awesome and it is something that Andy Logan does often for Garcia-loving guitar pickers). In addition, another deadhead and guitar collector, Jason Scheuner, brought along Phil Lesh’s legendary Alembic bass guitar, Mission Control, for bassist Skip Vangelas to use. Mission Control was the bass that Phil used throughout the stunning Wall Of Sound period (1973) of the Dead’s career. These instruments up on stage were like having celebrities in attendance.
Okay, but wait! All of this Grateful Dead geek out talk should not overshadow the fact that, for many of us in attendance, this was our first BIG show back from Covid quarantine. Now fully vaccinated, socially distanced, and hanging out in some of the finest spring weather California could offer, the band tumbled into the opening notes of “Truckin’.” It was perfect. The release was massive. With cheers, shouts, screams, and arms flailing, the crowd roared approval. It was as though over a year’s worth of pent-up aggression was collectively released into the Santa Cruz mountains and it was glorious! High-fives, hugs, smiles – it was all there – we were back! Live music was back.
The band moved through Dead heavies like “Sugaree,” “He’s Gone,” “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider,” “Black-Throated Wind,” “Next Time You See Me,” a long and exploratory “Dancin’ In The Streets,” “Big Boss Man,” and “Ramble On Rose.” But then, deep in the second set, the perfect thing happened. After a beautiful “Jack Straw” the band slid into that space that deadheads covet. That place in which space and music come together into the most magical of the Garcia/Hunter catalog, “Dark Star.” Those opening crystalline notes elicited cheers welling to a roar as the crowd told the band they were ready for what was to come. It was one of those close your eyes moments where you could reach out and touch the ethereal and feel the alchemy.
I masked up and moved toward the front of the stage with my camera in my hand, walking almost trance-like toward the source. I found a spot to the left of the stage against a fence and listened. Then, I looked over, and basically next to me was Betty Cantor-Jackson. Betty was a sound engineer for the Dead and responsible for recordings of the band that are every deadhead’s seminal, essential listening. She’s as much a legend as any of the band members. Standing behind Betty was Dennis McNally, the Grateful Dead’s publicist. Over by him, in a chair was Doug Irwin, Jerry’s luthier and maker of guitars like The Wolf, Tiger, and Rosebud. And standing next to him was Mission Control’s builder, luthier Rick Turner. The presence of these folks clearly showed the place that DSO holds in the Grateful Dead universe. If these luminaries want to hear Grateful Dead music, this is the band they come to see. They all stood there, Betty, a joint in one hand and a lighter in the other twisted knobs on a board, McNalley, eyes closed, sang the lyrics along with Mattson while Doug Irwin and Rick Turner sat nodded approvingly.
And that “Dark Star” was a beauty, Mattson channeling liquid Jerry leads as Eaton punctuated with Weir’s rhythm chops. And this was only the halfway point of the second set! I had forgotten the marathon that Dead shows are! Dino English took us out of “Dark Star” and into “Drums” before the band TORE into “The Other One.” There was a gentle “Sing Me Back Home” in which Lisa Mackey lent her pipes. A rollicking “Sugar Magnolia” followed by a rave-laden “ Turn On Your Lovelight” (another sweet nod to Pig Pen) and then a “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad > Not Fade Away.” Just prior to launching into the rock explosion of “One More Saturday Night” encore, we got our answer. They had been playing 5/7/72 Bickershaw, England. And while I knew it was a show from the Europe ‘72 tour, I’m not so good as to have picked what show it actually was. I still have a ways to go.
Dark Star Orchestra still maintains the magic of the Grateful Dead experience and The Felton Music Hall should be lauded for the effort they have put into these shows and those that are coming down the pike.