20 Aug 2010
- By Brandon Chiat
- Published on August 20, 2010
Cover bands are typically relegated to college-town dive bars and thought to lack a certain amount of creativity as they merely emulate those who came before them. But don’t tell that to Dark Star Orchestra, which has been reimagining Grateful Dead shows since 1997. The Chicago septet refuses to be labeled as a cover band. Instead, they humbly recreate the inimitable experience that is a Grateful Dead concert completely replaying a show's setlist from years past with their own unique flair.
Headstash Magazine chatted with Jeff Mattson, DSO’s newest member, about filling Jerry’s and John K’s shoes, their rigorous touring schedule and their brand new material.
Headstash Magazine: Replacing the lead guitarist and singer of a band that’s existed for such a long time must have been a difficult task. How did you deal with the pressure and expectations of walking into a polished band that was already touring heavily? Did it take long to get acquainted and comfortable?
Jeff Mattson: It helped that I knew all the guys, having opened many shows for them over the years with the Zen Tricksters and Donna Jean & The Tricksters. [DSO keyboardist] Rob Barraco was in the Zen Tricksters for 10 plus years so we already had formed a musical rapport. It also helped that the band was so tight and polished in that I only had to worry about how I played. Everyone in the organization was so welcoming and encouraging that I quickly felt comfortable.
HS: How would you characterize your approach to Jerry’s role? How have the other band members responded to it?
JM: While I have been heavily influenced by Garcia’s guitar playing, I listen to lots of other music and all of it informs what I play in one way or another. I’m most concerned with capturing the deep emotional quality of Garcia’s playing and his ability to play long, melodic ideas that gel over the long haul.
After learning the parts of the songs that remain consistent from performance to performance, I am less concerned with duplicating note-for-note Garcia licks in the open spaces in-between. It’s more important to be in the spirit of it. The beauty of the music is that everyone can still sound like themselves when playing it, so I think it was fun and fresh for the band to hear a different take on the songs.
HS: A lot of the fun for DSO fans has to do with guessing which setlist the band is performing. How do you decide which setlist to perform?
JM: It’s a complicated algorithm that involves trying not to repeat songs from the last time we were in town, from the night before and the night after, and trying to represent most of the various eras of Grateful Dead music in the course of a tour. It’s not easy!
[Follow DSO on tour. Check out all of their tour dates.]
HS: The Grateful Dead have evolved significantly in its 30 plus years. What are your favorite time periods to play?
JM: My favorite era would have to be 1972-1973, but I also love 1969 and 1976-1977. In truth, there is great music to be found throughout the band’s history.
HS: You’ve had an extensive career already playing with other Dead tribute bands, so what about DSO appealed to you? How has the experience playing with DSO compared?
JM: Playing with DSO means playing in nicer, larger venues. It’s so rewarding to be able to play before such a big and enthusiastic crowd and the Starheads are just great! DSO has a rock-solid team of people working behind the scenes, just an awesome and hard-working crew that I admire so much. They really have it together.
HS: DSO differs from your previous bands in that you now primarily work within the confines of the Dead’s repertoire. Has this stifled creativity or your desire to develop original material?
JM: First of all, DSO has just broken out the band’s first original song, written collectively by all the band members with lyrics by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. It’s called “Run Mary” and we played it for the first time on July 1st at Gratefulfest in Ohio.
I think this is just the beginning. No one should fear that DSO will stray from their Grateful Dead premise, but who’s to say we can’t express ourselves creatively by writing new songs also? The truth is we get to do a lot of creative exploring every night in the more free-form parts of the show. After all, that is what the Grateful Dead were about.
In addition, I will be continuing to perform with the Donna Jean Godchaux Band. I love that band! We have our own musical vibe that emerges when that group of people get together that really gets me off. Donna Jean and I will continue to write together as well.
HS: Are there any differences you notice between the jam-band scene today and the Deadhead culture you experienced when you were younger?
JM: Only that in the early days of being a Deadhead, it was almost like a secret club you belonged to that only another Deadhead would understand. Now there is so much variety in jam bands and the kind of music they play that it’s lost some if its exclusivity. That’s not a bad thing, just different.
Dark Star Orchestra will kick off their fall tour September 9th in Knoxville, TN. The tour includes a special acoustic show on September 20th in Teaneck, NJ.