Friday, November 18, 2011

Dark Star Orchestra do Boston

I have to admit it, I'm slipping back into Grateful Dead fanaticism again.  After our great experience at Gathering of the Vibes this past summer and listening to the incredible Furthur show (Syracuse 2011) that Dave was just at, we were *very* psyched to see Dark Star Orchestra.  We'd never seen them before.

I emailed them soon after we got tickets a couple of months ago, suggesting that they take advantage of the fact that they were playing in Boston in late November at a site (the Wilbur Theater) just yards away from where the old Boston Music Hall was and that they [please] recreate one of my first three Dead shows, which were at the Music Hall 11/30/73-12/2/73 (see Dick's Picks 14).  There was no response from them so I figured well, they don't tell anyone what set they're going to play and they would have been nice enough to say "no" if they weren't going to, so I'll take that as a "yes!"  As it turned out, it was a "kind of."

Got into Boston through heavy traffic and parked in Sarah's building's basement in Government Center, and we walked through the Common in the rain over to the Theater District, where we slipped into Jacob Wirth's on Stuart Street.  We had a great meal there and some fine beers, served and cleared very efficiently by their remarkable staff.  Really, we both liked that restaurant a lot.  And the fun thing was that it was filling up with Deadheads (the ones who could afford it).  One guy was wearing an excellent cross between a Bruins jersey and a Dead jersey: the bears were the GD bears and the spoked B on the front was a skull (Sarah ran into him outside and he said it was a promotion from when the GD played the Garden sometime in the '80s).  One woman in tie dye was looking at the menu like she'd never seen one of those things before.

After a bunch of beers we pranced the half block over to the theater and climbed up to our great seats in the second row of the balcony.  The place was still very empty, but there was a good crowd eventually ... the balcony filled to about half full.  And the crowd was dedicated to the last man/woman to say the least.

DSO opened with Cold Rain and Snow, which was the opener at one of the '73 shows I'd been at, but then they went into Cassidy and that dashed my hopes for one of the '73 shows.  BUT what they were covering was the June 9, 1976 show at Boston Music Hall (that I'd been to of course) so I figure they took my email to heart!  This is a great setlist including such incredible sequences as Scarlet Begonias/The Music Never Stopped/Crazy Fingers (not a segue but a sequence) in the first set and Dancing In the Street into Wharf Rat(!) in the second.

But I'm getting ahead of myself (or behind myself).  I didn't have any idea during DSO's act that this was a concert I'd been to, though I could tell by the content of the show that it was the mid-70s.  Jeff Mattson announced it right at the end.  Writing and thinking about it now, the reality is that there were two concerts I have to tell you about: one of which I remember from long ago and one of which I'm still buzzing from.

I'd started attending Dead concerts in 1973 and saw them about 5 times before they announced in 1974 that they were taking a break from touring.  In that mid-decade interval I saw Garcia a good number of times, including a fantastic stand at the old Paul's Mall in Boston, and my and my friends' fervor for the Dead built to a fever pitch.  When they finally got back on the road and came East, we were beyond psyched and snapped up tickets for all four of their Boston shows.  They opened in Boston on June 9th and we were all devastated when the shows did not live up to what we expected.

In retrospect, those shows were incredible, mid-70s GD shows by a slightly rusty band who were just coming off a long break and playing it safe.  They did their big hits (of the time) but didn't get that close to the famous GD edge.  Listen to the 6/9/11 show and you can perhaps hear what we felt, that they were sleep-walking through it all.  The set lists all four nights were so similar that we actually got bored with the songs (can you believe that?).  But that's damning with too faint praise.  Wonderful things about the show were that they played St. Stephen again after they'd dropped it from their repertoire years before, they snapped out of their stupor to end the first set with a rocking Promised Land, and the Eyes Of the World in the second set was a religious experience.  You should read what this guy has to say about it and remember that when I say I was disappointed back then I would still kill most anyone now to go back to the '70s and see the Grateful Dead again, who cares if they play Cassidy over and over and over?

OK, let's rejoin Jon and Sarah in the balcony at the Wilbur in 2011 and talk some more about disappointment and ecstasy.  I was a bit freaked out by the stage layout because I'd read that DSO recreates everything *exactly* and I couldn't place it.  The keyboard was an electric piano (did that indicate Welnick era??) and was on the left, not the right.  What was probably the "lead" guitar was where Garcia stood in most eras but it didn't look like an authentic Garcia to me (so did that mean it was early, before he could afford his own designs?).  And the bass was far right but there wasn't anywhere near the stack of speakers Phil always commanded.  Maybe I'm picking nits here, but that was *not* an authentic recreation of their set/equipment.

Never mind that, DSO came out and played that '76 setlist with an incredible mix of talent and energy.  Rob Eaton as Bobby was leading the band at a great pace from the get-go and dropping jaws all around.  Mattson was fantastic on lead, Rob Barraco did some piano runs that just rocked our tushes off, Rob Koritz and Dino English on drums did a great job of recreating the Kreutzmann-Hart sound, Kevin Rosen hit the bottom end well, and Lisa Mackey was wonderful on vocals and Donna-dancing.

There was so much I liked about the show and you should have seen the way Sarah and I and almost everyone else in the balcony was dancing, raving, laughing, and freaking out.  I really liked Eaton's guitar and  I felt that Mackey's contribution to the sound was delightful, that she was incredibly successful at contributing what Donna had sincerely tried to (and succeeded at sometimes), and that she even went way beyond that.  I'd have to rate her as a big plus.

They had me at the first notes of Cold Rain and Snow (which Sarah had said they *had* to play as we slogged our way over there through the cold Common) and just ripped it up in that incredible Scarlet/Never Stopped/Crazy Fingers sequence.  The highlight of the first set was their cover of Cash's Big River and then they reprised the Dead's show-stopper for the set-closer with Berry's Promised Land.  Wow!!!!!!!!!!

Between sets I walked way downstairs to the basement men's room because they had closed the top floor one (trying to be authentic to the '76 show I guess) and then chatted up a cute chick in the beer line when I got back upstairs.  She told me about the Furthur and DSO shows she'd been to recently and I tried to impress her with tales of the many Dead concerts I'd been at.  I just happened to drop the fact that my first one had been in the Music Hall in '73.

"Gee," she said.  I was two years old back then!"
"What a coincidence," I said.  "I was too!"

At that point I did a little math and realized she was 40 ... so much for cute chicks.

Before I get back to criticism, I have to gush about the second set.  When I hear the tape of '76 I realize how accurately DSO recreated the incredible introduction to St. Stephen and I can remember the rush of hearing those chords coming out of the [1976 successor to the] Wall of Sound back then [which was still pretty awesome].  From that the Dead go into ... and DSO recreated it excellently ... what seemed to me to be a 15-minute (but other reports say 8) introduction to one of the best songs that have ever been written, Eyes Of the World.  I could and will go on: a well-baked Weather Report, a short and sweet Brown Eyed Women, an incredibly high-energy Lazy Lightning (let me go back to '76 for a minute and say that that was one of the dismaying moments of the concert for us back then, to realize that the Dead were going to play disco), a powerful Samson and then a beautiful It Must Have Been the Roses with Mackey providing some ethereal harmonies.  "Dancing" into Wharf Rat, Around and Around, and then Franklin's Tower for an encore.  We were in absolute heaven.

OK, time to criticize.  I know you'll be shocked to hear that they weren't the Dead.  They were better in some ways and nowhere near as good in others.  Plenty of positives (see above, plus the fact that they were so right to pay homage to the best band ever and so talented that they were able to pull it off so well), but they fell short in other ways.  Rosen kept up the [s]pace and the bottom for sure but was nowhere near the dominating influence that Lesh was.  Barraco had his rocking moments but wasn't Keith spacing out all over the big grand and surprising everybody with how seamlessly he lapsed in and out of duets with Garcia over and over.  And the big thing for me (as it was with Furthur) was that there was no Garcia.  Mattson was great, surprising, lyrical, dynamic, and could get that charge in his leads when he needed, and I loved every minute of it and I can't say that I got sad, but it made me miss Garcia and the way he could take things over and play sounds that would go on for a lifetime and you could just fall into his guitar and he'd rock all of you.  And I never thought I'd get nostalgic about his vocals, especially one of those mail-it-in gigs like this had been back in '76, but his way of whispering into the mike and singing like a folk singer in a rock 'n' roll band ... well, I've never heard anyone else do that.  Except for Kaukonen of course, and Kadlicek comes close ... but I'm digressing.

OK, this has been going on for too long.  We loved it and were exhausted from dancing and covered in sweat and spilled beer at the end of it and we can't wait to see Dark Star Orchestra again.  We were among the last people to leave, walked back through the Common and drove home, and got to bed a bit after 1AM.  Not bad for a school night!

p.s.  Sarah is disappointed that she wasn't asked if she was the one with the acid (which happened to her at the recent Rubblebucket concert in Allston).  Guess she's losing that look!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

NERAX North 2011

Back to The Tap in Haverhill for this year's NERAX North.  Suffered through a dry burger and a painful jukebox at Toma's and then hurried over to the back hall at The Tap when we finally got out of there.

Three excellent Thornbridge ales were featured in this year's tutored tasting (that we didn't attend, we were too busy) and were on at the bar.  Here's what we sampled, roughly in order:

  1. Portsmouth Brewing (New Hampshire) Bottle Rocket IPA - hoppy and floral but dark backtaste from wood chips; strong, good flavor; too heavy for a session beer
  2. Jack's Abbey (Massachusetts) Smoke and Dagger - smokey, roasted taste with bright hops; not as strong a black patent flavor as some porters
  3. Thornbridge (Derbyshire) Jaipur IPA - delicate, balanced, more hop kick than is normal for a UK beer, even an IPA but well done; overheard from the guy who sat down heavily next to me: "... the Jaipur beer I don't know what I'm saying but my wife does."
  4. Mallinsons (West Yorkshire) Witch Hop - light but distinctive body; bitter foretaste, not aggressive but dominant; not much malt; late bitter aftertaste; ok
  5. Breconshire (Wales) Bright Beacons - Surprisingly full body; a bit sour; goes down well, session best bitter
  6. Thornbridge (Derbyshire) Halcyon - 7.7% ABV; buttered toffee nose; rich, complex taste; very bitter but lovely malts on the tongue; very, very good; bit too metallic water
  7. Brays (Maine) Mt Olympus Special Ale - molasses nose, standard American "dark IPA;" thin, metallic taste; body hops but they don't last; candy flavored aftertaste
  8. Offbeat Brewery (Cheshire) Out of Step - sticky, musty nose; thick body; great chewy hops, not bitter but flavorful; molasses aftertaste; sour in mouthfeel but crisp aftertaste
  9. Lymestone (Staffordshire) Stone Brood - Dark beer with honey and chocolate malt; smooth but rich, subtle chocolate mouthfeel, very little hops
  10. Thornbridge (Derbyshire) Kipling South Pacific Pale Ale - beautiful nose takes you away to the South Seas from the off; light, fruity taste but full body; incredible balance; bright hops in the nose; bit of a flat tire metallic taste but I mean that in a good way
  11. Allagash (Maine) Interlude - 10.5% ABV; this was a powerful beer!, alcohol and grapefruit dominant in the nose; sour attack, almost like a strong cider; Sarah tasted tomato and graham cracker, I tasted apricot and plum; alcohol burning in aftertaste, winey, dry aftertaste because of all the alcohol; a very interesting beer
  12. Andrews (Maine) Pale Ale - very mellow but quality nose; cinnamon taste; fresh mown hay, fat and sunny like a baby; hard English water, very good English style from an American brewery; you'll never find this quality in a bottle

They called last call a bit early (give a bell to a guy and he'll ring it at his first opportunity) as far as we all were concerned, and you should have seen the rush for another round of the Halcyon.  We all agreed it had lots of flavour [sic].  That was the unofficial beer of the night!