Dark Star Orchestra is keeping the Dead alive

Band carries on the distinctive style of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comOctober 10, 2013 

Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra re-creates particular performances by the famous group in its live shows.


Jeff Mattson has done a lot to capture Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing style through the years, but he won’t lop off a finger — no matter how much Garcia’s mutilated digit informed his playing.

“He only had half a middle finger on his right hand,” explained Mattson, lead guitarist for Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra. “He would switch from playing with the pick to fingerpicking. He would tuck the pick under the stub and go to fingerpicking.”

For Garcia, that technique arose from a childhood accident — his finger got in the way of an ax. Mattson does it to better emulate the former Dead guitarist.

“In order to get that sound, I’ve learned to do that myself,” Mattson said. “I don’t have a stub — and I’m not in a hurry to get one — but I learned to tuck the pick under the finger so I can go back and forth like he did.”

Of the many Grateful Dead tribute bands out there — and there are hundreds — Dark Star Orchestra, which performs at Cal Poly on Oct. 14, might be the best known — one that has garnered rave reviews from Dead members. Which is why Mattson didn’t hesitate to join the group after founding member John Kadlecik left to join Further with Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in 2009.

Given the Dead’s lofty catalog — Dark Star members had to learn between 300 and 400 songs — Kadlecik’s replacement had to be someone with Dead cred, if you will. Fortunately, Mattson had been playing Dead songs for decades, partly with his previous bands the Zen Tricksters and the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson, featuring former Dead singer Godchaux.

“It would be a tremendous learning curve if you didn’t know a lot of the material,” he said. “There’s just so much of it. So if I hadn’t been such a hardcore Dead Head and student of the music, playing his guitar style, I don’t see how someone could do it.”

Dark Star shows emulate specific Dead performances. Members are particular about their positioning on stage, the instruments they use and even the evolution of the Dead’s live performances over time.

Mattson’s history with the band goes back to the first time he saw them live.

“I saw my first show in 1973,” said the New York City native. “I don’t know how many shows I went to over the years, but I never stopped going. People say, ‘Oh, I stopped going this certain year,’ or ‘I took a few years off,’ but I always went as much as I could.”

That — and a lot of practice — helped him learn the nuances of Garcia’s guitar playing. While not known for guitar the way Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton are, Garcia did have a distinct sound — which partly explains why Rolling Stone once ranked him the 13th greatest guitarist ever.

“He’s one of those guys you can hear play three notes, and you know it’s Jerry Garcia,” Mattson said.

Mattson also captures Garcia’s at-times pleading vocal style.

“Some singers have these great instruments within their voice,” Mattson said. “He had what God gave him, but he always sang with such emotion, it was really compelling. It would melt your heart.”

After three decades of legendary touring, the Dead established themselves as the quintessential live band. That proverbial long, strange trip — to quote the Dead — ended in 1995 when Garcia died of a heart attack while in rehab.

“I was naturally horrified, but I wasn’t surprised,” Mattson said. “Because I had seen him play that summer, and he was so disconnected and not in a way that I had ever witnessed before.”

Two years after Garcia’s death, Dark Star Orchestra was formed in Chicago. Committed to the live shows just as the band that inspired it was, Dark Star has performed more than 2,200 shows, keeping the Dead alive.

“I’m just glad that whole scene didn’t die when Jerry died,” Mattson said.


Dark Star Orchestra
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
7:30 p.m. Monday
$18 to $35
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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