Deadheads galore

Paul Flahive
From left to right: Kevin Rosen, Rob Koritz, Jeff Mattson, Lisa Mackey, Rob Barraco, Dino English and Rob Eaton
Dark Star Orchestra in concert

On the south wall of the Moose's Tooth hangs an unassuming and relatively small show poster in a frame, looking slightly out of place next to the larger and more psychedelic posters from past First Taps and other Bear Tooth shows.

The poster advertises the momentous three-day appearance of the Grateful Dead at the West High School auditorium in 1980.

In a career that lasted more than 30 years and included 2,300 shows, the Dead played only once in Alaska. Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, with a career half as long and a rapidly gaining show count of nearly 2,000, will play its first Alaska show Thursday at the Bear Tooth.

Jeff Mattson, lead vocalist and guitarist -- or the Jerry Garcia -- of Dark Star Orchestra, said the band has averaged around 150 shows a year since he joined in 2009. The band just returned from the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, playing to what he described as Bonnaroo-like crowds. The bearded, burly Mattson sounds tired on the phone. Jet lag, he said.

"It's the most successful one. I can say that without bragging. It is just the case," said Mattson of Dark Star Orchestra's place among Dead tribute bands.

There are more than 270 Grateful Dead tribute bands from at least four countries, according to Mattson would have a good idea how his band ranks -- he left another prominent Dead tribute band called the Zen Tricksters, a group that he founded, to join Dark Star Orchestra. He replaced John Kadlecik, a DSO co-founder, who went on to join former Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in the band Further.

Dark Star Orchestra owes its success to a simple concept and a bevy of good musicians. Kadlecik and fellow Chicagoan Scott Larned formed the band in 1997 with the idea of replicating the exact set list of a specific show from one of the hundreds the Grateful Dead played. Even more, the group uses the exact vocal arrangements and gear from the different Dead eras. Concertgoers are encouraged to figure out what show it is. That this is considered a reasonable expectation -- figuring out one specific night in more than 2,300 shows -- should give you an insight into how dedicated Grateful Dead fans are.

"It's fun for the crowd," said Dan Fiacco, who handles booking at Bear Tooth Theaterpub and is himself a Dead fan (12 shows in four years of college). "We have been trying to get (Dark Star Orchestra) for several years," he said.

Fiacco said he expects the four-hour show with intermission to attract a sell-out, tie-dyed crowd and joked about whether or not Girdwood will have anyone in it that night.

"Deadheads come out of the woodwork, everywhere from Fairbanks to Seward," he said.

Another self-described Deadhead, 28-year-old Ian Brown, said he wouldn't miss it and waxed poetically about that sense of community. "I love the Grateful Dead and so do the members of DSO. We're all part of an extended family that includes every Deadhead out there. We are all connected by the music," he said.

Deadheads have accepted Dark Star Orchestra, but so have some former Grateful Dead members. Dark Star Orchestra has played with Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Tom Constanten, Vince Welnick and Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay, lending legitimacy to what the band is doing.

"I know that Donna Jean is pretty cool with it and sits in often. Some of the guys feel a little weird but honored by it," said Mattson.

He recognizes it might be strange for a group of people to dedicate their professional existence to replicating someone else's professional existence. It could be seen as counter-intuitive too since the group is replicating the Grateful Dead, a band recognized for a pioneering sound and a reputation for improvisation. How do you replicate improvisation?

You don't, but you do. Dark Star Orchestra does its best to replicate a feel of the Dead while improvising. That is why the group describes itself as a tribute band and not a cover band.

"As far as doing another band's music, I don't think you could find another band who lets you use as much creativity," said Mattson.

By Paul Flahive
Daily News correspondent