Warm Up Deadheads

Dark Star Orchestra picked one of the coldest winters on record to embark on their Southbound Winter tour. They kicked off the first of the shows January 20 in Des Moines, Iowa. The temperature? Seven. In Milwaukee, the band awoke inside a 45 degree bus. Outside? A mind-numbing minus four.
Guitarist Jeff Matson, in a recent telephone interview, was unapologetic about his desire to head south toward warmer skies, even if the Florida weather isn’t exactly promising a day at the beach.
“Anything is better than the Midwest,” he says. “This is my first trip to Florida with Dark Star so I’m really looking forward to that. Warm weather and a chance to see the Florida Deadheads.”
    DSO will perform the music of the Grateful Dead February 9 at Freebird Live in Jacksonville Beach. Matson has played here before with his former group the Zen Tricksters and despite the chillier than average temperatures, he is looking ahead to a warm reception with the community of people he has grown to know as family.
DSO has taken the role of tribute band to new heights. Spectacular chunks of sonic history are reproduced not just in sound but in time and temperament, as well. DSO relies on live footage, recordings and archived set lists from Dead shows past to preserve the integrity of the music in painstaking detail.
“We try to take a particular night, say a 1978 show, for example, and we try to play in a way that the Grateful Dead was approaching those songs in 1978. There is different drum beats, guitar effects, sometimes different lyrics because the songs have evolved over the years, Matson says. “In some cases, they have devolved. We try and capture the spirit of the arrangement of each era.”
Playing in a tribute band can easily stifle any originality but Matson says DSO stretches their creative liberties into the most far-reaching corners of the songs. Once the band is comfortable that the context of a song is in line with the original, they play it in “real time” and employ the same searing improvisation that turned a four-minute Dead song into a 14-minute anthemic acid trip. Breathing the same spirit into the gaps gives DSO artistic license to take the music even further without tarnishing the holy ground from which it grew.
“The Grateful Dead never played anything the same way twice. And like them, neither do we,” Matson says. “The notes that we play in between is real-time improv, much in the same spirit of The Dead.”
Matson doesn’t recall when he was first introduced to the music of the Grateful Dead. He remembers the exact date that he experienced his first of at least 200 Dead shows – September, 1973.  
“There were so many golden moments over the years but one always looks to his first show,” he says. “Seeing the band live was such a revelation, and look where I am now 40 years later?”
Matson says the band is branching out in terms of technology by adding a blog to their website at www.darkstarorchestra.com
    Drummer Rob Barraco posted the band’s first blog on their website six days into the tour offering an honest glimpse into the not-always glamorous life of touring musicians.
    One commonality between the Dead and DSO is the warmth that is shared between the artists on stage and those in the crowd giving back what the band is putting in.
“We feed off their energy and they, in turn, feed off of ours. It’s a loop that goes back and forth,” Matson says. “I love to look out and feel that heat. It’s definitely a shared experience.”
The relationship between DSO and their fans is a vital connection that fuels the spirit of the band’s lives shows. The Grateful Dead shared the same love with their fans who embraced the band as a lifestyle and the shows as a traveling family reunion.
Matson is hopeful that the foray into the blogosphere will serve as another link to their audience. It is also a useful tool to document experiences from the road for posterity’s sake, he says.
“It’s definitely a little of both. Blogging is not new but for us, using the internet is a new way to reach out to our fans,” he says.
However they connect with fans, DSO carries on the Grateful Dead’s tradition with repeat customers turning up show after show.
    “A lot of people come to a lot of shows,” he says. “It appeals to the same audience of people looking for an adventure. You never know what you are going to get.”