For Dark Star Orchestra, the Music Of The Grateful Dead Never Stopped

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.

RO: What's the crowd look like at a Dark Star show? Do you find a lot of new converts and oldsters who were there "back then"?

JM: Our crowd consists of those too young to have seen the Dead and are hungry for that kind of adventurous musical exploration as well the older fan who pines for the kind of fun you could really only find at a Grateful Dead show.

RO: Is there anyone who you would like to have sit in with the group one day? Anyone who got away?

JM: Just last weekend at our Dark Star Jubilee Festival, Grateful Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann and The Meters bassist George Porter Jr. sat in with DSO and we had a whole lot of fun.

I have been fortunate enough to have played at one time or another with all the living members of the Dead. I cherish those experiences as the high points of my musical career. I would loved to have gotten a chance to play with Jerry Garcia -- to see what our musical conversation would be like.

I got to meet Jerry briefly once and I treasure our interaction. He was very kind and engaging. The late, great John Cippolina, guitarist for Quicksilver Messenger Service and frequent Dead collaborator, comes to mind as another one that got away.

RO: I just bought another copy of Workingman's Dead. If you were teaching a Beginner's Dead class, where would you make your students start?

JM: I think I might start them out with Europe '72, the Dead's three-record set representing their 1972 European tour. For starters, in my opinion, it is an excellent document of their ability to lock in with each other in the collective improvisation that is such a fundamental part of what makes GD music so "magical."

It also runs the gamut between short, catchy tunes and long, exploratory jams. Most Deadheads would fundamentally agree that The Dead were at their best in a live setting. This album documents the variety of styles they dabble in and yet always sound unmistakably like the Grateful Dead.

RO: Do you see any young, modern groups who could become another Dead, or has that ship sailed in the 21st century, that sort of community?

JM: To build that kind of sense of community, a band has to be willing to change their set list from night to night and take a lot more chances musically than most bands do. If the audience feels they can trust the band to come through for them often enough to make following them seem like their best bet to taste that magic, then they've got a shot at it.

When the band responds viscerally to energy the audience brings, the audience becomes a very important part of the show. I think Phish probably has a similar relationship with their fans as does Pearl Jam.

And yet...there's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.

8 p.m. Thursday, September 27, at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, www.hob.com/houston.

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