Ahhh, Dark Star.
Had I been born ten, even five years earlier than I was, I would have used every opportunity I had to attend some of the many concerts performed by my favorite band, the Grateful Dead. Notorious for their incredible live performances, the Grateful Dead performed 30 years worth of music that remains today only in audio, occasionally in video...not in experience. Their music has brought me more joy than almost anything I can think of, and I never even got to see them play together.
But the fact remains, their music has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined; that in mind, it would be unrealistic for me not to wonder what kind of experience I can hear going on in the crowd in all of those old live recordings I've collected. I reiterate, I never had the chance, as Jerry Garcia died during the summer of my 10th year. If that's not an acceptable excuse, I don't know what is.
Since 1999, a band that began as a local act in Chicago has turned into my favorite live music act, and has done so by mimicking the surreal art form of that same band, the Grateful Dead. This group, called Dark Star Orchestra, has taken a not uncommon concept (performing live as a Grateful Dead cover band, playing only songs that the Dead played) and embellished upon this, to the point of performing not just songs by the Dead, but entire setlists from the Dead's concert history, which spans over 2,300 individual shows with none the same as the one before.
Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) plays around 130 masterful shows each year, usually recreating an old Dead setlist followed by a few filler songs. The group uses their own members to correspond with the oft-changing members of the Dead's repertoire; for Dead setlists which originally included vocalist Donna Godchaux on the bill, DSO will include singer Lisa Mackey to play Donna's mpart. But during shows that didn't include Donna, Lisa can sometimes be found working the T-shirt sales booth. Clues like this, and like the list's particular song selection, spin the concert on an entire new level for hardcore fans such as myself - offering us the opportunity to guess which year the list is from. And in the meanwhile, they are outrageously talented, as close to a carbon copy of the Dead's sound as I have ever heard.
My mom does not approve. She's very proud of my tastes in music, for which she's more responsible than anybody. I've turned her on to some awesome tunes, but she is not down with DSO. She feels that music is about creativity, which I can agree with her about to a certain degree. But music is not only about creativity, and I believe that creativity can be (and is, in every single concert) possible amid this band's kind of imitation. They do not listen to each Dead performance and recreate it note for note, only song for song. Those of us who know the Dead know that would be certifiably impossible, especially when the band plays a three-hour show every 2 1/2 days on average.
But within the boundaries of each song, DSO lets their creative spirits soar, improvising and romancing every possibly variable segment of every single song. The songs are the Dead's, and DSO shows those of us who were not fortunate enough to experience the Dead in person, just the faintest glimpse of what that experience might have looked like, felt like, smelled like. And for giving me that glimpse, they are my single favorite group to see perform.
Having amply introduced the band (love you Ma), I'll tell you about my concert experience this past weekend. I'd purchased my ticket online a couple of weeks ago, paying more than I'm used to for a Dark Star ticket, but enjoying the convenience of knowing I was getting in without a fight.
My usual concert buddies, Joey and Sarah, had not purchased tickets, as Joey had to visit his dad in Pittsburgh the night before and wasn't sure if he'd make it. The day of, he decided he could make it, after online ticket sales had already ended. So being the nice guy I am, I hopped into my trusty motorcarriage and trekked on down to the Electric Factory, located at 421 N. 7th St., between Callowhill and Spring Garden. The website said the ticket window would be open at 4:00, so when I arrived at about 6:15 in the afternoon, I expected they might be sold out. Instead, the website was lying, and I sat around with a friendly group of hippies until the window opened at 6:55. I bought Joey and Sarah's tickets for $30 each, about $5 cheaper than my ticket, goddammit.
Well, no matter. Not feeling like driving home, only to drive back after a few hours, I decided to stick around and find a good watering hole to kill my time. I took a peek at my trusty Not For Tourists Philly guide, which directed me four blocks east to Finnegan's Wake - which, once I got there at 7:15 p.m., was closed. Absolutely ridiculous.
There was nothing else in sight, so I marched back west until arriving eventually at...the Spaghetti Warehouse, by 11th St. No thanks.
From there, I headed south, hoping something might beckon to me from Chinatown. Alas, it was not to be. Every place looked exactly the same, and I really, really wasn't in the mood for Chinese food before a long night of dancing.
So at Market Street, I headed back east, enjoying a pleasant walk through lovely (though restaurant-free) Independence Park, eventually finding myself at a low-key bar called Charlie's, located by the corner of N. 3rd and...Vine? Regardless, the walk took me a fucking long time, one that I don't plan on making again anytime soon. Live and learn.
Inside Charlie's, a sexy, sharp-witted bartender named Rachel served me a plate of fish & chips, along with a handsome selection of beers. During my visit, Sarah arrived ahead of Joey and came in to match me on drinks, which she did very skilfully, including a few $3 kamikazes.
We lurched our way over to the E-Factory around 10 (the show started at 11), meeting up with a few kids on the way who were lucky that I knew where I was going.
We met up with Joey right outside the venue, which was swarming with tye-dye and a few unwelcome cop cars. On Joey's suggestion, we decided we'd enjoy this concert from the balcony, since we'd shown up with enough time to find a decent spot. This was the best place to enjoy the beverages, as there were cute waitresses in black shirts weaving their way through the crowds.
My friend Ryan, an old co-worker, called my phone knowing I'd be there. He pointed himself out to me in the audience, sitting with his girlfriend Reagan at the top of the balcony, on a couch. I had no idea such an amenity existed at the E-Factory, and what a lovely surprise it was. We managed to still get a decent view of the band over the heads of a few people sitting at barstools a few feet in front of us, but fuck, we had a couch.
The band played very well, and I expected no less. I was slightly disappointed, however, that the 11:00 start time had to give way to a mandatory 2:00 a.m. end time, by law. Each song was ever so slightly more punctuated to save time, and I could hear it. Still, this was my 15th (16th?) Dark Star show, and my first in almost a year, for reasons inexplicable. So I was thrilled to see them in almost any context. They played a solid show from January 14, 1978 - and yes, I guessed the year correctly. Highlights included a Jack Straw opener, Cassidy, Loser, Let it Grow, Candyman and Eyes of the World, including a Don't Let Go encore. It was a terrific show, and the option of standing up to dance or sitting on the couch to catch my breath was a magnificent one, indeed.
I'll be out to see them again soon, but I should mention that my trip home from the E-Factory that night took a full hour. In contrast, the drive back the next morning to drop Joey off at his car, took 15 minutes. Go figure.
Since then, the three of us have begun our discussions of our upcoming trip (and by upcoming, I mean a year from now) and where we'll be going in each spot. You'll hear more about that, next time.