Dark Star Orchestra (January 2006)

Date of Performance: January 21, 2006
Venue: Barrymore Theater, Madison, WI, US

Event Abstract

The show was filled to capacity. In attendance were all kinds, from smokers to tokers and even ones wearing chokers. I saw beards and beanies, tie-dyes and certainly a slew of red eyes. I spotted painful piercing and many vibrant tattoos. This was a colorful crowd to say the least. A few people even glowered in the aisles with gratuitous glow sticks. The fluorescent green hue gave them a sinister air on top of an eerie and illuminated aura. It was quite an unusual audience the Dark Star Orchestra drew to the Barrymore on this chilly January night. Even with the brisk conditions, the band was still quite the attraction. People came out in droves to see them. It was so packed; attendees were literally hanging from the rafters. Enhancing this Twilight Zone experience, I might have been the only unaltered adult in attendance. I was part of a minority that evening, which made it quite the sobering experience. My presence was accentuated by my tame attire and a recent clean cut. To say I stuck out like a sore thumb would be an understatement. I was more like the unsightly scar on a newly marred finger. Like a fish out of water, this could have been terribly uncomfortable. Fortunately for me, this fan base was hospitable, tolerant, considerate, and accepting.

A Place In The Queue

To take this back a step, I have never seen such an awkward process to move people inside quickly. There was one line to buy the tickets (oddly enough, many people were buying them at the door that night) and another to gain admittance. They could have easily opened up the other doors and let those who had just purchased their tickets in immediately. They chose instead to send them to the back of another line. Not only was it inconvenient, but it was being vigilantly enforced. There wasn't any logical reason for it whatsoever. It seemed more or less about imposing wills and laying down the law than administering an intuitive system. It doesn't take a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist to optimize a proper scheme. I found it quite irksome, if you ask me, and the proprietors of this establishment should seriously consider a change in this unreasonable policy. This is not the most efficient way to move people from point to point nor is it the right way to treat cooperative peace-going people.

Break On Through To The Other Side

In spite of these gawky practices, I eventually made it in. I originally planned to go because my brother-in-law suggested this as something that was "not-to-be-missed." Then he dropped out due to sudden conflicts. His sales pitch made me curious and raised my level of intrigue to the max. Now I was wondering exactly what I doing there.

More About The Fans

Looking into the crowd, I saw all types, all ages, some sitting, and some standing. While I joke about the fan base, there really were all kinds, from flower children to residents of the hippie house. I saw older patrons, college students, and your friendly neighborhood inhabitants. During my exercise in people watching, I started to understand the fascination behind The Grateful Dead and even this band. It seems to be as much about the culture and the community as it is about the music, which is why I'm spending so much time discussing these details. Eventually, they assimilated me into their clan and I became one with the rabble, dare I say resistance was futile.

Between the political pins and protest t-shirts coupled with the crazy queue system, you'd think a revolt was going to break out before the event even had a chance to start. Ironically, these fans were more bark than bite. Once the music began, their focus was exacted nowhere else except towards the stage. Aside from having to deal with overzealous security and taking my place in line twice, as usual, it was a great venue. The acoustics and sound system of the Barrymore Theater were both first rate. They were neither too loud nor too heavy. The decibel level was just right whether you were up close, in the back, on the balcony, or even in the hallway. Since it seats scores of people, this is an excellent choice for your local everyday above average band. Due to the fact this band plays tribute to a legendary troupe and they themselves are popular among the natives, they couldn't have picked a better spot. At this place, I've seen many acts from The BoDeans to Dream Theater and it's yet to let me down. It didn't this night either.

While each group lures its own lineage, this seemed to attract an element that is rarely seen on the streets. I found myself missing the plight typically brought in by progressive metal fare. One fan in particular stood in the walkway and danced a wacky rumba while doing disturbing gyrations on top of creepy hand gestures. I imagined this guy as the band's unofficial court jester.

The Clean Air Act

The smoking ban was in full effect. While some belligerent folks felt above the law and broke the ordinance, the air was quite clean and pure. In my opinion, this rule is one that helps the atmosphere in more ways than one. You could breathe easily and "see" the band, so it was a definite advantage. This should be a policy applied to other concert venues. Then again, I don't partake in puffing these sticks of smoke, so I'll concede that I'm speaking from a biased perspective.

The Members

To diverge from The Grateful Dead, Dark Star Orchestra featured a woman dancer who doubled as a female vocalist. Her contributions added depth to the music. Most of the time, she was just an inanimate fixture. I thought she was a groupie or somebody who snuck onto the stage. Then she opened her mouth and sang. Eventually, I got the picture. She'd only sing on some songs and when she didn't have a part, rather than go off to the side, she just enjoyed the show while channeling the music through her contorted limbs.

The guitarist appeared to be a younger version of Jerry Garcia. Likewise, he also showed an uncanny resemblance to Nick Nolte's Jerry from Down And Out In Beverly Hills. His guitar riffs were not the usual rubbish found digging through the trash. Instead, they were premium choice and prepared in the most gourmet of ways. It was as if The Grateful Dead's Jerry was reincarnated.

The Concert

As for the song selections, I couldn't tell you much, but what I can say is that some of the jams went on and on, sometimes carrying into the next song. At first, this wasn't my cup of tea, but ultimately I got into it. Their most interesting attribute was the fact they had two drummers. They weren't exactly King Crimson, but their coordinated efforts made an impact on me. Rather than use the extra set to add unintelligible complexity, they traded off and created many enchanting layers.

With that said, I really enjoyed the drum solo. Well, in this case, it was more of a duet, but it was strictly high hats, snares, bass drums, and percussion. Everyone else got out of the way. Due to this duality on the drums, it resulted in a truly unique sound. Each set brandished a slightly different configuration. It was hypnotic how they played the same parts at times and then each played something a little different at others.

Also, to put you in a trance, psychedelic paintings were placed on the backdrop. They were coupled with strobe lights, flashing lights, and even black lights. This gave the setting a real sixties effect.

They played like Phish or Umphrey's McGee, but since they used someone else songs and sounded like the band they played tribute to, from what I can tell you, they sounded surprisingly close to The Grateful Dead. In the end, if this is the music they like and fans come by the herds to see them, you have to ask yourself, "Why reinvent the wheel?" They did not, so they must have come to the same conclusions. What they did produce led to an authentic reproduction. They continue to carry the torch and fans seemed to appreciate it.

The Highlight

Separating the forest from the trees, my favorite song was "Shake It Sugarbee." Like a few of their other pieces, this insect went through a metamorphosis and took on a life of its own. Eventually, their jams stymied your internal radar system. There would be a point where you would lose track of time and be carried off by a wave of riveting riffs. Only when it ended did you reawake from this temporary, but innocuous coma. This was a good note to leave on. They went on intermission shortly thereafter and unfortunately, their return was postponed to outlandish proportions.

The Downside

This leads me to my sole complaint and it's not a minor one. On the minus side of the accounting books, the event wasn't all that professionally run. It was marketed to start at 8 PM. Even without an opener, the musicians didn't take the stage until 30 minutes later. Once they had everyone's attention, they proceeded to have about 15 minutes of sound checks. Isn't this something that's supposed to be done earlier in the day? At least that's what I would've thought and I'm basing this on extensive concert experience. In addition to all of this, the drawn out break, which was originally plugged as a short delay, really tested a fan's patience. What were they doing backstage? Come to think of it; don't answer that question! We wouldn't want to incriminate anyone for their recreational habits.

The Upside

After numerous false starts, the music finally began. Once it did, it took on a whole different vibe. With the lights down low, they were all business from one jam to the next. Once they got the fuselage in the air, it was smooth flying from there on out.

Back To Reality

Regardless, this charter came in completely off schedule, which I'm sure caused a problem for anyone who rushed to get there or couldn't stay late. I was exclusively there for the music and didn't welcome all this extraneous waywardness. For the record, the fourth song didn't even begin until 9 PM and trust me, while these were long songs, they weren't exactly epics. To add insult to injury, the intermission was so long it was ridiculous. There wasn't any notice when their craft would take flight again. Personally, I was on a tight timetable and didn't appreciate these amateur antics.

The Final Word

I had not anticipated such a long and drawn out show. It goes without saying that before the second set, I split. The "quick" break in the middle had taken 30 minutes and counting and honestly, I had enough at this point. All in all, it was a great show put on by a number of skilled musicians and if not for this disorderly conduct, it would have been a first class trip. Besides a few bumps in the road, it was an impressive act. They paid their respects to a famous act by performing extremely accurate renditions. When they weren't asleep at the wheel, their actions resulted in a milieu of magical moments.

I'm not much of an expert on the band, but I do know many Deadheads. I was told by friends, family, and even those waiting in line to see them that all you need to do is close your eyes and you'd think it's them. Based on my limited knowledge of both bands, this seems to hold water. I might be a prog snob, but I'm trying to branch out. I can safely say there was certainly something of merit in their music. While there were a lot of empty calories (don't mean to keep stressing the point), there were many delicious sips to swallow once you cracked the can. The songs were good and between two long sets, you got a lot for your money.

While only one band played that night, they did the work of two. This could have easily been separated into two concerts, so in a way, my early escape shouldn't be seen as a negative mark on their abilities. Even under the circumstances, I felt I got a full show and in turn, experienced enough to walk away happy.

Rating: 3.25/5

Dark Star Orchestra

Added: April 9th 2006
Reviewer: Joshua "Prawg Dawg" Turner

Artist website: www.darkstarorchestra.net
Hits: 1006
Language: english

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