The Scene: This Fourth of July, the boys (and girl) of Dark Star Orchestra transported us to the year 1989 less than three years after what is known by the Grateful Dead as their “big year;” a time when the money and the hits were rolling in. The show we were revisiting took place at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, on an evening in late March. Deadheads young and old were in attendance, and I was among a sea of vintage tie-dye t-shirts representing the Grateful Dead and Dark Star Orchestra alike. The energy among the fans was more than enough to make up for the fact that the show wasn’t quite sold-out.
Dark Star Orchestra: On this warm Colorado night, we were served a setlist that had a healthy balance of funkified Bobby beats and classic Jerry jams. The result was an incredibly satisfying night of music and, with Rob Eaton and Jeff Matson going back-and-forth on vocals, the medley of tunes sounded so sweet to our eager ears.
The first set took off with “Mississippi Half-Step,” which would turn out to be one of the many sing-along jams of the night. Clean and articulate were DSO’s guitars as Matson led the crowd in a sing-along to those divine lyrics, “Across the Rio Grandeeo; Across the lazy river.” Over and over we sang with this obvious crowd favorite and set-opener. Next up was “Walkin’ Blues,” a song not as common in the Dead archives, and as a result a special and unanticipated treat. Eaton carried the tune with the deep, consistent vocals that make him such a unique and imperative part of the Dark Star tradition. The whine of the electric guitar reverberated throughout the crowd as we all got comfortable, breaking out of our shells and moving our dancing feet.
Back to a Jerry tune, naturally, and I began to have an idea of the pattern that the rest of the evening’s set would follow along. “Built to Last” was a less predictable song for the setlist as well, and another certainly pleasing one. When it’s nothin’ but the hits, there’s something tried and true about the song that you know you might not hear again for a long while.
One of the greatest moments of the night was the beautifully emulated, “You Can Run.” Keyboardist Rob Barraco led the song on vocals, with Matson and Eaton joining in for the harmonious chorus. “Whatever we’ve done, we’ll never get far from what we leave behind; baby, we can run, run, run, but we can’t hide from it” – the combination of these lyrics with the gorgeous three-part harmony was genuinely heart-warming, the good vibes felt throughout the crowd and shaking me to my core.
Any good Dead set includes one of their classic Bob Dylan covers, and tonight the chosen one was “Queen Jane Approximately.” Matson then took the lead on “Candyman,” with another three – or four – part chorus ensuing. Eaten brought the first set to a near close with his never-failing Weir-y sound on “Cassidy” before the almighty, and (some would argue) the Dead’s most popular hit, “Touch of Grey.” The set came to a close with Matson cooing, and the audience obediently repeating, “We will get by; we will survive!”
After a set break that was kept short and sweet, the second set kicked off with the classic “Scarlet>Fire” medley. The guitars paired with the synthesizer piano, and the boys gracefully moved from the melodious rhythm of “Scarlet Begonias” to the raucous opening beats of “Fire on the Mountain.” Another terrific sing-along commenced to the chorus of “Fire,” sandwiching a steady guitar solo from Matson. During the beloved chorus, the lights came up to illuminate the entire crowd, twirling and jiving in absolutely ecstasy.
Following this set-opening medley came hit after hit starting with an “Estimated Prophet” that showcased Eaton and his deep, alto vocals that are impeccably Bobby. Next up was crowd favorite “Eyes of the World” and, looking around, whether you had possibly witnessed this same moment 25 years ago down in Georgia, or whether you hadn’t even been born by ’89, everyone got up to dance and and took a deep breath in preparation to sing along.
Halfway through the second set, and true to the show that took place on March 27th, ’89 a drum solo ensued. Alternating between drum sets and what sounded like an arrangement of African drums Rob Koritz and Dino English battled it out on opposing sides of their extensive setup. Another fan favorite, “The Wheel,” led into “I Need A Miracle” and the audience was on the verge of yelling as we all chanted along with Eaton those four gospel-like words and the ever strident, “Everyday!”
Cue a Jerry jam, here comes “Standing on the Moon.” I’ve witness this utter phenomenon of a song performed a number of times by Phil, Bob and the rest of the Furthur crew, but never before has it oozed with such intimacy as it did on this night. I feel blessed to have been a part of this moment in DSO’s own history, witnessing this tune that has never resonated more with me than it did right then.
Closing out any show that dates back to the late 80’s requires a funky, groovy, dance-your-ass-off Bobby beat, and that came in the shape and form of “Turn on Your Lovelight.” As if Eaton couldn’t out-Weir the man already, his vibrant screams on the second syllable of every “lovelight” was the cherry on top of a fantastic rendition. I had been hoping that, at the encore, the boys would let us know that the setlist was originally performed on an Independence Day and, although that wasn’t the case, in true Americana form came “U.S. Blues.” The lights shone bright red, white and blue (crimson, white and indigo, if you will), and a group of fans let their [American] flag fly from the upper balcony. People clapping, singing, dancing and celebrating the day, the band, and life brought the night to a near-close. March 27, 1989 in Atlanta, Georgia had been successfully relived, but there was still one more treat in store.
Enter Lisa Mackey on vocals for a full-band harmony of the Jerry Garcia Band’s soulful version of “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” Though the setlist had officially been completed, DSO just wasn’t quite finished yet, and a 10-minute JG Band cover was the best ending to a night of soul, dance, love and of course, independence. A very merry Fourth of July indeed, and thank you, boys (and girl) of Dark Star Orchestra. Keep on keepin’ on.
Stage Presence: B+
Set/Light Show: B