When the Dark Star Orchestra played last year at The Egg, they matched the exact setlist of the Grateful Dead’s March 25, 1990, show at the Knickerbocker Arena (now the Times Union Center). The year before, DSO played two consecutive nights at Revolution Hall, the first a copy of the Dead’s Ohio show in June ’93, the second an original — or, as DSO fans call it, an elective show, where the band creates their own setlist culled together from the Dead’s songbook.
Tracing back to 2004 and 2005, the DSO played back-to-back 1970s Dead shows. So if one had to bet money on Saturday night’s DSO concert at The Palace, a bump-up in venue size for DSO area concerts, odds would be good for an ’80s-era show for those Brent Mydland fans who favored the Dead’s more peppy, energized years.
DSO fans spend their nights dancing through every moment of every song of the concert. But they also spend considerable time guessing the era of the original show, and then, as the night progresses, homing in on the actual date of the Dead concert. The band announces the show at the end of the concert.
Saturday night opened with “Jack Straw,” a slow “Friend of the Devil,” and then “Little Red Rooster.” Each tune was packed with clues, such as the jazzy piano solo in “Friend,” the piercing and weak slide solo in “Rooster,” and the absence of singer Lisa Mackey, who travels with the band but doesn’t sing when the show is pre- or post-Donna Jean Godchaux.
Kevin O’Rourke, from Saratoga, guessed that the show was from the late ‘70s, though he and his 25 year-old son Pat admitted to not really knowing.
Rick and Lorrie Runnels from Mariaville also didn’t know, but Rick ventured a guess at June 10, 1978.
“Late ’70s, around December to February, on the East,” said Jed Bierman from Delmar, who is too young to have seen the Dead, but has logged numerous Dead-related shows: DSO 33 times, Ratdog 22 times, and Phil and Friends somewhere in the double digits.
As the night wore on, the band played a hot “Cumberland Blues,” then “Brother Esau,” “Loser,” and “Let it Grow” to close the first set.
Clues during these songs included guitar sounds unique to the ’80s, the wildly fast and bouncing “Cumberland Blues,” the peppy, high-energy piano similar to Brent Mydland’s style, and “Brother Esau,” which didn’t appear until the ’80s.
At the set break, 20-year-old Andy Burnett from Lake George, who said he’s seen DSO only three times, guessed the show was from 1984. He was right. Pressed for location, he answered, “West Coast.” On that he was wrong.
Then there are those who use electronic tools for help. Steve McDonald from Queensbury was staring at the actual set list on his PDA from a Web site that archives Grateful Dead setlists. He told me the place, date, and every song.
The second set started with “Slipknot,” “Franklin’s Tower,” and “Estimated Prophet,” all mid-’80s live gems. DSO nailed each one, and the next, “Eyes of the World,” less of a clue because they played this song during their last three decades. “Throwing Stones” and “Morning Dew” made the second set soar.
“I started seeing the Dead in ’85, in Saratoga, so I know it’s from around then,” said Mike McMann from Stephentown, who also recognized the era from his tape collection.
DSO started this phenomenon 11 years ago in Chicago. Today, 1,600 shows later, they have their own solid following, a large portion of whom have never seen the Grateful Dead. For the older set who, in their youth, saw dozens of concerts from the original band, they were transforming experiences. For them, the DSO is far more than a trip down memory lane — though it is that also. And for those who have never seen the real thing, DSO can’t duplicate the actual experience, but it’s about as close as anyone can ask for. And that’s what we got Saturday night.
What show was it? Merriweather Post Pavilion, Maryland, June 27, 1984.