A few months ago, I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Grateful Dead Movie on new, spiffed-up Blu-ray in my usual glut of snail mail. As a Dead novice, the film helped me sight in my appreciation for a group that had long been denigrated in my familiar circles. I get it, hippie shit, not loud or fast enough.
But a few viewings of the Dead movie and some choice Dick's Picks led me down a rabbit hole, which led my interest to be piqued when I saw that a band that has done more than anyone else to keep alive the Dead's mystique was coming to Houston.
The Dark Star Orchestra has been performing Dead shows live since 1997, just two years and change after the death of Dead leader Jerry Garcia. For Deadheads and fans of jam bands in general, the DSO is an indispensable part of a balanced jammy diet.
For oldsters who got to see Jerry and the guys the first time around, they are a joyous trip down memory lane, and for the younger set, it allows them to touch something that you can't get no more.
The DSO comes to Houston's House of Blues Thursday night on one of their annual stops in the Bayou City to reel out more Dead knowledge. I talked to lead guitarist Jeff Mattson about the group's function as something more than just a Dead tribute act, and on playing with former members of the iconic rock group.
Rocks Off: As the years go by, the legend of the Dead looks like it could have faded, but you guys keep it alive. How important is that role to the band?
Jeff Mattson: The Dead legacy is surprisingly strong at this point, years after the passing of Jerry Garcia. What we are seeing in the audiences that come to Dark Star Orchestra concerts are large amounts of Deadheads that are too young to have seen the Dead live in addition to the older fans that are seeking to re-live the experience.
That is perhaps the most important mission of DSO, to bring this wonderful music and improvisational style to a new generation. In the same way a symphony orchestra keeps the music of Beethoven or Mahler alive and heard in a concert setting by each new generation, we seek to propagate Grateful Dead music and keep it alive.
RO: What are your favorite Dead moments to recreate?
JM: My favorite moments are those where the music takes on a life of it's own and to quote from one of their songs called "The Music Never Stopped", "the music plays the band."
It won't necessarily happen at the same places in the music as it did for the Dead but it's those elusive moments that happen in live music where everything gels and becomes effortless and joyful. Those moments are a large part of what drew their audience to the Dead and are the magic ones we live for.