Concert Review: Dark Star Orchestra Shines at the Drive-in


Ayden Flanigan

Scores of cars lined up around the back of the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex on Saturday, October third. A march of dancing bear bumper stickers waiting to be corralled into carefully crafted rows in front of a small stage. They were waiting to see Dark Star Orchestra, one of the most successful Grateful Dead touring cover bands. It was raining, but there was kinetic energy in the chilly autumn air while fans as far as the eye could see put together tailgating setups of varying degrees of sophistication and started to make merry within their pod groups. When the crowd settled down and darkness sealed the gaps between our cozy capsules, there was already a feeling that we were in for a special evening.

Vermont Deadheads setting up their tailgating setups. Photo: Ayden Flanigan/The Register



Dark Star Orchestra took the stage just before 7 p.m. and while they started to tune-up, the staff from Higher Ground walked around with large signs that read “Be the PA! Tune your radio to 100.03”  encouraging folks to leave their car doors open during the show. Audience members opened their doors to contribute to the communal sound, some even setting up their own speaker systems to improve how the music sounded for them and the folks around. It was a great feeling to know that everyone there was making the experience that much better for everyone else and that coincided beautifully with the friendly atmosphere that Dead fans foster. 

Fans beating the cold and enjoying the music outside of their cars. Photo: Ayden Flanigan/The Register

Because of the temperature, many decided to set up a space in the back of the car to bundle up and try to stay warm. Before long the band started up with a smoking take on the Dead’s “Feel like a Stranger” and you would have thought the cold winds were run right out of town by the number of heads out dancing in the drizzle. 

After the opener, the crowd bopped to the low and slow groove of “Tennessee Jed.” The riffs and solos coaxed out by Jeff Mattson, playing the musical role of Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, were note for note wonderful. His silky sweet guitar tone channeled Garcia’s sound, but his interpretation was wholly his own. It was gratifying to hear him follow his own intuition and play licks that you likely wouldn’t hear on a recording of Dead show.

Each member used their own playing style and musical personalities to bring a different edge and immediacy to the songbook. All of the musicians were on the entire night, experimenting with their solos and their parts in perfect communication. One second you got the feeling the group was imitating Neil Armstrong hopping around weightless on the moon and the next second the whole band crashed down back to gravity with another tightly-wound groove.

The first set raged on with highlights including “New Minglewood Blues” featuring a fantastically flowing slide guitar solo from Rob Eaton, playing the musical role of the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir.  Sandwiched between a groovy disco rendition of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and the far-out jazz of “Bird Song,” vocalist Lisa Mackey delivered a captivating rendition of “Strange Man”. After “Bird Song” fizzled out, the band took a break and left the crowd eagerly anticipating more. If you weren’t won over by now, you had no hope. Like they sang in “Feel Like a Stranger” it was “gonna be a long, long, crazy, crazy night” and we were all for it.