Article Content Provided by Finn Turnbull]

A Conversation with Jeff Mattson of Dark Star Orchestra

08:31 April 23, 2017
By: Finn Turnbull

A Conversation with Jeff Mattson of Dark Star Orchestra
[Photo Provided by Finn Turnbull]

If you missed the Bob Weir show at the Saenger last week, or you just really love the Grateful Dead, you don't want to miss out on Dark Star Orchestra at the Joy Theater this Thursday and Friday, April 27th and 28th. Dark Star Orchestra is a very dedicated cover band of the Grateful Dead's music. They don't just cover their songs, though, they re-create full shows from the band's history, using the same instruments and arrangements, intending to match the themes of the particular era as well. They came together in Chicago, Illinois in 1997, two years after the Dead disbanded, with the hopes of "continuing the Grateful Dead concert experience." Original Dead members, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Donna Jean Godchaux, Vince Welnick, and Tom Constanten, have all taken the stage at some point with DSO to honor the legacy. Their April 27th date here will actually be the anniversary of a very memorable Grateful Dead show in New Jersey in 1977 at the Capitol Theater. Dark Star has announced that they'll be playing that show in its entirety, a perfect occasion for Jazz Fest. Just before their double night run in NOLA, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jerry doppelgänger, Jeff Mattson about how they do things:

Have you guys ever played in New Orleans before?

"Yes, it's been several years, but the last place we played there was the House of Blues, I think the last couple times we were there. I'd say it's been four or five years since we played in New Orleans."

Do you guys like it in New Orleans?

"Oh yeah! I mean, I'm sure I'm not telling anyone who's from there anything that they don't know, but we travel all over the country, and there's a handful of cities that really have some personality to them, you know, that are really one of a kind. New Orleans is definitely one of those cities [Laughs]. And I come from New York City, which is another one of those cities that I hope people would say. New Orleans is just loaded with personality and fun, and great music, too."

Would someone who never got to see the Grateful Dead be able to get a taste of what it was like from one of your shows?

"Well, that's what we're hopin'. That's what's we're shootin' for. I could say that we probably do a pretty good job of that. At any given night, we will perform a different show from a different era, and try to reproduce all the elements of that era in terms arrangements and instruments. Beyond that, the context of the Grateful Dead being very improvisational music. We still will play our own notes, but we try to honor the show and the period as much as we can without slavishly copying licks or anything like that."

When you re-create a Dead show from history, do you try to maintain the original length and song order?

"Yes, yes. We do the songs in the same order and play the arrangements that they used in that period. As much as we can, we use the appropriate instrument setup and gear that they used in that period, and try to capture the flavor of it. We don't copy a show note-for-note. That would be ridiculously complicated, for starters, and very impossible to do night after night. But more importantly even than that, it's done in the spirit of the dead music, which is to take those songs and play them the way you're feeling that night and what comes out of you musically. So, we're all improvising all the time."

Are there any Dead shows that you look forward to re-creating specifically?

"Yeah, I guess some more than others. A lot of times we'll be playing a show that I was at, and that's kinda fun. [Checks with tour manager if they announced the New Orleans show yet] I think the first night we're doing a show from 1977."

-Right, the April 27th one.

"Yes, that's right. We don't frequently do that, but it will be the 40th anniversary of that show. That was a really powerful tour for the Grateful Dead, the spring tour of 1977. One that I was fortunate enough to see them play a few shows on, myself, not knowing that it would be one of the highlights in their career. [Laughs] Just, "Well, these guys are great!" [Laughs] So, in honor of the fact that it calls on that date, we thought we would announce it and pay tribute to it."

Have you ever tried to re-create the show they played here just before that infamous bust on Bourbon street?

"That's a good question that I don't know the answer to. It wouldn't surprise me. It's certainly in the realm of things we would do. Though we may have done it, I just don't recall offhand. We were fortunate enough not to get busted afterward. [Laughs] They took a long time to come back to New Orleans after that, I think. [Laughs] 10 years or something like that."

How does it feel when you get to jam onstage with any of the original members of the Dead?

"That's a real particular thrill for us. I can speak on my own behalf that I find those moments to be the highlights of my career. To get the chance to play with these people that are my musical heroes, there's nothing quite like that. Not only is it fun and exciting for the part of you that's like, "Wow, this guy wrote this song and I've been playing it for four years," but it's also affirming that they would think enough of our playing that they would deign to play with us. It's a nice affirmation."

What's next for DSO after Jazz Fest?

"Well, the big thing about this year is our twentieth anniversary of the band. So, all year round we're kind of celebrating that. So, things are gonna pop up here and there. Also, it being 40 years since 1977, I think there will be a little extra tribute to that during the year. And, you know, just traveling around. We do our own festival (Dark Star Jubilee) on memorial day weekend in Ohio, and that's always a high point for us, and in the early part of the year, we go to Jamaica (Jam in the Sand). We haven't done that for about five or six years. These are some of the things we look forward to."

Dark Star Orchestra will be playing two nights back-to-back this week during Jazz Fest on April 27th and 28th at the Joy Theater.

A Conversation with Jeff Mattson of Dark Star Orchestra

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