Jerry Garcia is halfway through his second set on a cold midnight in December, San Francisco, 1977. Or at least a very high-quality simulacrum (no Sr. Spielbergo) is singing “Scarlet Begonias” to a swarming El Rey crowd in Los Angeles, thirty years later. I’m in the middle, surrounded on both sides by withered drunken ex-hippies in tie-die, moving graceless and out of rhythm, single-handedly trying to prove a theory I’ve long harbored: 97.3 percent of white men can’t dance (pollster margin of error, two percent).

This doesn’t seem to bother anyone at the sold-out Dark Star Orchestra performance. Except for me and its not due to a few hippies doing “the octopus.” I’m pissed because a heavily soused and middle-aged Dead Head is swaying, reeling, than crashing into me, hollering “FIRE IN THE MOUNTAIN!!!” violently and into my right ear lobe. Meanwhile, Scarlet Begonia’s reggae lilt bleeds seamlessly into the jazzy elastic riffing of “Fire on the Mountain,” and the crowd explodes in a paroxysm of cheers.

In one all-encompassing moment, people’s loathing and loving of the Dead became abundantly clear. Until then, I’d never understood older friends of mine who’d rolled their eyes everytime I’d ask them if they liked the Dead. 70s Babies whose teenage years had coincided with the Dead’s last years as cuddly, mass-merchandised anachronisms, followed by a slightly sad army of tie-died, pony-tailed acid casualties.

“Yes dear, I think you look fabulous in tie-die”

But I was just 13 when Jerry died and his death didn’t even register with me. The Dead were hippie music for old people. Besides, I’d just gotten this purple cassette tape in August ’95 and honestly, Ghostface talking about Adina Howard being on his mind all week, seemed a whole lot cooler to me than a fucking “touch of grey.”

So when I finally came around to listening to the Dead, nearly a decade later, I came in with few pre-conceived notions and immediately fell in the love with the band when a friend passed on several old bootleg cassettes of shows dubbed from late night radio. I immediately bought American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead and just kept going, to the point where a section of my apartment wall is covered in old Dead vinyls, not to mention, my last remaining bootleg which stays permanently lodged in my car’s tape player–for emergencies.

In short, the Dead became my favorite American band. More timeless than The Doors. More warm than the Velvet Underground. Deeper than the Beach Boys. A stronger catalogue than Love. A body of work so prodigious and rich it spans hundreds of songs, thousands of wildly unique shows, and a varied fusion of styles, from blue-grass to folk, from psych-rock to mountain songs, to jazz, the blues, and even disco. Like great classical composers, the Dead’s musical legacy demands to be heard live, so the “youngins” can experience it first-hand (note: this will be the first and last time “youngins” appears on this blog…unless I do The Passion of the Weiss Presents: Appalachia Week.)

And c’mon, how can you argue with Bill Walton? On second thought, don’t answer that question.

Enter the Chicago-based Dark Star Orchestra, a group of men (plus one ersatz Donna Godcheaux, who succeeds in being as annoying as the real Donna Godcheaux) who brilliantly channel the spirit of the Dead, picking a different classic Dead set list each night and faithfully re-creating it. To label them a cover band is a tad demeaning. As their name indicates, they’re closer to an orchestra, with seven people on-stage, delivering Garcia-like pyroclastic guitars, double-percussion, flailing keys and funky bass lines with perfect precision, and fluid natural-seeming improvisation.

Their ability to approximate the Dead, circa late 1977 (a year that Dead experts consider to be one of the band’s finest) was uncanny, down to the vintage equipment, the identical stage arrangements, and DSO members who looked practically identical to their Dead counterparts. In particular, Rob Eaton, DSO’s Bob Weir was pitch-perfect, nailing Bob Weir’s herky-jerky vocal tics to absolute perfection. The orchestra was pretty much flawless, to the point where if I’d have closed my eyes, I’d have been hard-pressed to know the difference. And judging from the crowd’s whoops and adulatory applause, others agreed.

Blazing through a set list that contained classics like “Friend of the Devil” and “Truckin” to lesser-known gems like “He’s Gone,” “Estimated Prophet,” and “Brown Eyed Woman,” The Dark Star Orchestra left a wake of inebriated hippies floored, allowing them to joyously re-create that last acid trip one more time. But it wasn’t only the newest members of the AARP who enjoyed Dark Star. Kids as young as 13, happily experienced the songs of the Dead performed live for their first time, approaching the band from a different angle, one untainted by this horrific image (on another note: Dear ’80s-you suck). Even if you have just a passing interest in the Dead, check these guys out. Half the fans might be grandpas gone wild, but in the DSO’s very capable and talented hands, the Dead’s brilliant musical legacy shines through. Turn on your love light. Just try not to knock an aging hippies lights out when he spills his drink on you immediately thereafter.

Dark Star Orchestra on Myspace (with tour dates)

Stream the actual Grateful Dead 12-27-77 Show

Download: The Passion of the Weiss Grateful Dead Primer (zip file, left click)

Track Listing
1. Me and My Uncle from Grateful Dead (also known as Skull and Roses, 1971, live)
2. The Golden Road (Unlimited Devotion) from The Grateful Dead (1967)
3. Scarlet Begonias/Fire On the Mountain from Dead in Cornell (5.8.77, bootleg)
4. Shakedown Street from Shakedown Street (1978)
5. St. Stephen from Live/Dead (1969)
6. Brown Eyed Woman from Dead in Cornell (5.8.77, bootleg)
7. Box of Rain from American Beauty (1970)
8. Casey Jones from Workingman’s Dead (1970)
9. Touch of Grey from In the Dark (1987)
10. Sugar Magnolia from American Beauty (1970)
11. Friend of the Devil from American Beauty (1970)
12. Unbroken Chain from Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel (1974)
13. Truckin’ from Workingman’s Dead (1970)

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