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Highberry headliner Dark Star Orchestra: ‘More experience at Dead songs than the Dead’

Ever wish you could have experienced the Grateful Dead in concert? Well, short of resurrecting deceased rock stars or time-traveling, you can come as close as humanly possible, at Highberry Music Festival June 29-July 2, when Dark Star Orchestra headlines, from 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday.

The Dead tribute band – widely hailed by critics as “the best Dead touring band in the country” – is marking its 20th year in 2017, and, as GratefulWeb notes, DSO has more experience playing the Dead than, well, the Dead, racking up more than 2,600 performances of Dead set lists from days gone by.

At its concerts, the seven-member DSO usually bases their own show on a set list from the Grateful Dead’s 30 years of extensive touring, occasionally mixing things up with an extra song or two thrown in (also typically from the Dead catalog).

“Led by Bob Weir doppelganger Rob Eaton, the members of Dark Star Orchestra hardly go through the motions but submerge themselves in the music, with vocalist Lisa Mackey channeling Donna Jean Godchaux with her primitive howling,” writes Jason Blevins in a 2013 Denver Post review. “Jim Allard, filling in on bass with only a few shows under his belt, delivered a commanding performance as Phil Lesh, with bombing bass riffs and great singing.

“Eaton’s command of Weir is occasionally eerie, with Eaton masterfully revealing Weir’s off-riff and downbeat guitar style. And his interplay with Jerry Garcia counterpart Jeff Mattson captures the Grateful Dead at their most inspired. That’s the thing with DSO. They play each song as the Dead would when everyone was on fire. There are no off-shows or weak performances, both of which were occasionally included in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire.”

Mattson, who replaced John Kadlecik in 2009 after Kadlecik was asked to join Further and play his Jerry alongisde Dead founders Lesh and Weir, “fills the beloved Jerry role with aplomb,” the Post said. “He’s got the aching voice – evidenced in a moving ‘Stella Blue’ and ‘Morning Dew’ – and the subtle yet resonant licks on guitar.”

Grateful Web reviewer Charles Sokoloff was equally enamored with Dark Star, in a 2013 review of a show at Boulder’s Fox Theater:

“Every time I see DSO, I become more impressed with their effort, energy, and enthusiasm. The fact that they have the musical chops to match makes them one of the best bands in the land. Tonight provided yet another example of the joy, and sometimes downright euphoria, they bring to Deadheads everywhere.”

Dark Star Orchestra has performed throughout the entire United States, plus Europe and the Caribbean. DSO continues to grow its fan base by playing at larger venues for two- and three-night stands as well as at major music festivals including Bonnaroo, All Good Festival, Gathering of the Vibes, Mountain Jam, and many more.

Fans and critics haven’t been the only people caught up in the spirit of a Dark Star show. The band has featured guest performances from six original Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay, Vince Welnick, Tom Constanten and DSO has toured with longtime Dead soundman, Dan Healy. Other notable guests have included Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman of Phish, Keller Williams, Warren Haynes, Steve Kimock, Peter Rowan, and many more.

“For us it’s a chance to recreate some of the magic that was created for us over the years,” Eaton says. “We offer a sort of a historical perspective at what it might have been like to go to a show in 1985, 1978 or whenever. Even for Deadheads who can say they’ve been to a hundred shows in the ’90s, we offer something they never got to see live.”

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