Dark Star Orchestra at McDowell Mountain Music Festival

Categories: Last Night

mmmf puppet.jpg
Benjamin Leatherman
Not the only banjo player on hand...
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Dark Star Orchestra
McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Compound Grill
Saturday, April 14

A good part of the fun of a Dark Star Orchestra concert is trying to figure out what original Grateful Dead concert the band is attempting to emulate. That's what DSO does--pay tribute to the Dead by playing their music, but not in the way the average cover, or tribute, band does. DSO goes to great lengths to understand the phrasing, tone, intonation and direction of the Grateful Dead during the different eras of its existence. Even the instruments change out to represent a time period. I mean, they get it right--or pretty damn close--when they choose a concert to perform.

But what I only realized on the drive home was that given the 90-minute time constraint of their McDowell Mountain Musical Festival set, DSO couldn't replicate an entire Dead concert. There just wasn't time. However, blissfully unaware, I went into the concert determined to guess the show--or at the very least the particular tour--before the show was over.

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Benjamin Leatherman
Fans gathered to soak in the Dead-vibes.
Here's how it all unfolded:

The band arrives. Donna is on stage. Well, actually Lisa Mackey, who handles the roll of Dead singer Donna Godchaux. That immediately narrows down the time period to a mid- to late-70s show. No '80s "Day Job" excesses. The band begins a lengthy intro jam that turns into "Jack Straw." The band, fresh in from a Los Angeles gig, starts off tight--in the loosest sense--and blazes a welcome trail that gets the fairly full house swaying and shaking.

"Box of Rain," rumbles in next, appropriate given the clouds threatening all day to open up. The band is completely dialed in, right down to the original vocal nuances of Phil Lesh. This narrows the period further, as Lesh didn't perform the song often. Maybe 1972, 73, with a remote 1974 possibility.

"China Cat Sunflower," that rollicking, rolling jam with amazing guitar solos amid multiple canyons and plateaus, brings the guess down, maybe even to 1971. Barreling into "I Know You Rider" like a runaway freight, the familiar paring was now complete and well formed. The Dead often tossed these songs into the middle of the first set in the old days, but was Donna in the band then?

All around kids are tucking into tie-dye blankets as the sweater-sporting parents danced. Bubbles floated in the cold evening air among beach balls and glow sticks, and the party atmosphere was in high gear. Everyone was shaking about in some form.

Next up was the rarely played "Women Enough," by Loretta Lynn and sung by Mackey. This bluesy Janis Joplin-esque number kept the mystery set in early-1970s, but when?
"Black Throated Wind" slowed the tempo a touch, but this infrequently performed song carried plenty of intensity and emotion through searing guitar licks from Jeff Mattson and powerful vocals from longtime guitarist and "Bob Weir" of DSO, Rob Eaton. Still thinking 1972 or 73.

But could this set have really happened? Doubt's beginning to creep in.

Location Info


The Compound Grill - CLOSED

7000 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Music

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Spot ON review man. Great read and an even better experience to have been there. It's as close to the real thing as you are going to get, Great great job to the Compound/MMMF crew to get these guys there. Epic!!! Keep up the great writing, that's some good stuff. Cheers!!


Ive seen them 6 times in San Francisco and they are always taking it to another level-frickin awesome!!!


Wow! Excellent review,  Your dead scholar approach to that set were right on Glenn.  Academic Dead aficionado writing here on every detail.  I thought it was July 28,1973 show at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen Speedway, just outside Watkins Glen, NY because of the heavy influences of the Allman Brothers player Dickey Betts that I kept hearing all night, but I am no way the expert that you are.

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