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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012

Dark Star Orchestra @ The Pabst Theater

Feb. 3, 2012

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A sold-out crowd of 1,300 gathered at the Pabst Theater Friday night for the return of the Dark Star Orchestra, the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band that not only performs, note for note, the catalog of the Dead, but also brings its own craftsmanship to the beloved songs.

While the members of the Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) have revolved since its formation in 1997, it still strictly adheres to complete, historically accurate performances of Dead shows. Friday night's performance took its historical cues from the original Dead's show at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Sept. 14, 1988. (For those wondering why DSO vocalist Lisa Mackey was absent, she only performs when DSO does '70s shows replicating the harmonies of original female Deadster Donna Godchaux, who sang with the band during that period.)

DSO started the first of two sets in its three-hour-plus show with the Sam Cooke gem "Let the Good Times Roll," getting the vibe-heavy crowd into a gyrating, upbeat mood. Those introductory blues segued into a tight sprint with "Alabama Getaway," lead guitarist Jeff Mattson replicating Jerry Garcia in terms of vocals, guitar playing and natural girth. By the third song, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the crowd had the beach balls going, adding to the carefree spirit of the moment.

Rather than simply copy the vocals and exact instrumentation of the Dead, DSO added its own creativity. Rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton, replicating the guitars and vocals of Bob Weir, commanded the stage early on with his fierce stance on "Walkin' Blues," showcasing finger work that intermingled blues and rock. Later, in the second set, he got at the vulnerable core of "Looks Like Rain."

Lead guitarist Mattson brought back fond memories with his take on slower ballads like "It Must Have Been the Roses" and the downbeat "He's Gone," yet he still made the music his own. Even a cover like The Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'" had its own creatively reworked groove, set to the low-key thwack and thump of drumming duo Dino English and Rob Koritz.

True to the "more is more" spirit of the Dead, the night went on and on and on with more of the classics. The show's opener stated, "Come on and let the good times roll, we're gonna stay here 'til we soothe our souls, if it takes all night long"—and that's exactly what DSO did, all night long.

Photo by Melissa Miller