A tribute band is truly in rarefied air when fans turn up as much to hear them perform as they do to hear the songs originally popularized by someone else. Such is the case with Chicago-based Dark Star Orchestra, which isn’t just popular with Grateful Dead enthusiasts, but also with former members of the actual Grateful Dead.
Begun in 1997, the Dark Star Orchestra’s mission was simple: to recreate not only the music of the Grateful Dead, but also actual setlists, playing songs as they were originally performed on a date many years earlier. The Grateful Dead of 1969, the Dark Star Orchestra theorizes, sounded different from the Grateful Dead of 1979 or 1989, and so the songs should reflect that. And while the members of the Dark Star Orchestra don’t let the audience know which setlist they’ve revisited until the end of each show, attendees at their performance at the Bearsville Theater on Sunday, November 27 might find themselves looking for clues.
When the Dark Star Orchestra hits Woodstock this month, it’ll perform an all-acoustic set. The Grateful Dead performed over 2,300 shows since forming in San Francisco in the mid-‘60s, and an obsessive Deadhead could probably tell you how many of those gigs were acoustic. Of course, Dark Star Orchestra could simply be playing acoustic versions of songs played originally during a specific set in full-on electric form. Adding to the potential mystique, the Grateful Dead was known as much for its mindblowing live improvisation as it was for rootsy acoustic music as heard on albums like American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. So maybe trying to figure this out in advance wouldn’t do much good at all.
But really, the best thing about Dark Star Orchestra is that you can stop overthinking the music and simply experience it. It’s likely that even if you have a favorite Dead era, or even a favorite show from its vast past, hearing the Dark Star Orchestra play almost anything will satisfy.
The Dark Star Orchestra performs a Grateful Dead setlist to be revealed later that night at the Bearsville Theater on Sunday, November 27, with general-admission tickets $40. For more information, visit www.bearsvilletheater.com.