Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) at Wolf Trap


DSO Keeps Truckin On, Continuing the Grateful Dead Concert Experience

The Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) rocked Wolf Trap last night like it was 1985.  Continuing the Grateful Dead experience, America’s premier Dead cover band plays Dead shows in their exact replica. Last night, it was February 19, 1985, a show originally performed at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, CA.

Dark star Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.
Dark star Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.

Normally seen at The Birchmere or the 9:30 Club when they roll through town, last night was a headline opportunity in a much larger venue. With the shed only half-full but the lawn area filled to capacity, and with bouncing beach balls and the sweet smell of marijuana filling the air, and tie-dye visible everywhere, DSO hit the stage promptly at 7:00 p.m. and thrilled the crowd to their last notes at 10:40 p.m.

This was a show for real Deadheads, featuring several of the Band’s most noteworthy and popular tunes. Kicking off the night with “Jack Straw,” featuring a beautiful solo from ace guitarist Jeff Mattson, a founding member of the legendary jam band The Zen Tricksters, the fans rose to their feet and never sat back down until intermission. Rob Eaton, rhythm guitarist and DSO member since 2001, took the spotlight on back-to-back golden oldies – “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “All New Minglewood Blues,” showing off his slide guitar skills in the latter. Eaton sounds like Bob Weir from the Dead, moves like Bob Weir from the Dead, yet puts his own personal spin on the music.

The Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia classic “Brown-Eyed Women and Red Grenadine” was up next, followed by a slow moving Brother Esau. This marked the low energy point in the first set, but things kicked back into gear with a beautifully jazzily performed version of the Dead classic “Bird Song,” with Mattson showing off his strong vocal skills.

The first set ended on a double high-note, with Eaton kicking it out on the Weir (with former late Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland and regular collaborator John Barlow) – penned “Hell in a Bucket” followed by a high-energy rocking version of “Might as Well” ending the first set.

The band truly kicked into gear after a 30-minute set-break. Starting off with the fan favorite “Truckin” the crowd remained on its feet for the duration. A magnificent version of “Terrapin Station” followed, one of the true highlights of the night. Keyboardist-extraordinaire Rob Barraco, who has played with original Dead bass player Phil Lesh as part of Phil and Friends and has been a DSO fixture since 2005, shared lead vocals with Eaton on “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” a song made popular in the late 1970s by Robert Palmer. The crowd sang along to every word.

Up next, drummer duo Dino English and Rob Koritz took center stage for a rousing 15-minute drum solo, not sacrificing any of the crowd energy. Fans were on their feet grooving to the beat. The two drummers left the stage, and Barraco, Mattson, Eaton and “the new guy” bassist Skip Vangelas, who joined the band in 2013, took the stage for an improvisational space jam.  Vangelas was excellent all night long, particularly in the second set, with his thumping bass echoing through the open shed. The triumvirate of English, Koritz and Vangelas held fort all night long with their syncopation and rhythm.

With the two drummers back on stage, the main second set closed with back to back bombshells – Eaton showing off his vocal chops on the Weir song “Throwing Stones” followed by the touching and beautiful 1982 Garcia-Hunter classic “Touch of Grey.” One could almost feel the presence of the late great Garcia during the number, with the crowd on its feet, passionately dancing the night away to the beautiful rhythm.

But the night was not over. For the encore, DSO rocked the joint (no pun intended) with the legendary 1958 Chuck Berry “Johnny B Goode.” There could have been no more apropos encore, which includes the perfect lyrics “Many people coming from miles around to hear you play your music when the sun go down.” That’s exactly what this night was all about. Barraco announced the origin of the show and to the thrill of the crowd, announced they still had a bit of time.

Joined on the stage by the fantastic Lisa Mackey, with her long flowing hair and her beautiful singing voice, not to mention her classic Dead-twirling dance moves,” the band broke into “Help on the Way” and Slipknot,” two-thirds of what was historically a Dead triple-play with the crowd favorite “Franklin’s Tower.” With “Slipknot” ending, the crowd was ready to erupt when the band instead launched into a driving version of the Bob Dylan classic “Tangled Up in Blue.” The vocals were perfect and the energy was at the high point of the night for this beautiful rendition, with lightning filling the evening sky and a driving rainstorm kicking into fifth gear, drenching the happy loyalists on the lawn.

The night closed with a spiritual song often performed by the Jerry Garcia Band – “My Sisters and Brothers” written by Charles Johnson. The crowd swayed to and fro and sang along as the band harmonized magnificently, with Mackey’s voice adding perfection to the vocal mix.

Dark Star Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Wolf  Trap.
Dark Star Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.

The exhausted crowd exited the beautiful venue and lo and behold, the rain came to a halt for just long enough for the audience to return to their vehicles before the skies opened up again. The Deadheads, including this one, were very happy. As I rushed to exit before the next deluge, Garcia and Hunter’s lyrics from “Touch of Grey” came to mind and summarized the experience.

Running Time: Three and a half hours, with one 30-minute intermission.

Dark Star Orchestra performed on Sunday, August 3, 2014 at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center — 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For tickets to future events, go to their performances and events calendar.

Dark Orchestra website.


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