It seems a good general rule that tribute bands, depending on their quality, should be seen and heard, but probably not filmed or recorded. In person, they allow their audiences to imagine or reimagine the experience of actually seeing the original performers. But in any recorded medium, they are in competition with their models and must suffer necessarily. The Dark Star Orchestra can make the claim to being something more than a tribute band to the Grateful Dead, however, and the ensemble's close association to members of the Dead family made this DVD (and bonus CD) set practically inevitable. As the word "orchestra" in its name implies, the DSO, while having the same instrumental lineup as the Dead, aspires to be something of a repertory organization, closer, perhaps, to what Wynton Marsalis is doing for Duke Ellington at Lincoln Center than what Beatlemania was up to. For each of its shows, the DSO re-creates the set list of a particular show performed by the Dead, attempting to use similar equipment to get the sound, as well as the arrangements, right. And they are not so much a group of musical actors playing parts as they are musicians steeped in the Dead's music trying to play it as their predecessors did. (If that approach is good enough for Beethoven, why not Jerry Garcia?) And they are the protégés of Bob Matthews, longtime Dead engineer, in association with his partner Betty Cantor-Jackson, who is also on board for this collection. Matthews is not only the executive producer of this project, but he is also releasing it on his own ArSeaEm label. The show, filmed and recorded at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, follows the Dead's performance of May 5, 1977, in New Haven, CT, a fairly typical concert that featured such favorites as "Sugaree," "Tennessee Jed," "Deal," "Bertha," "Scarlet Begonias," "St. Stephen," and "Sugar Magnolia." At the time, the Dead included singer Donna Jean Godchaux, and she guests here, singing along on eight songs, while Lisa Mackey sings on another seven. John Kadlecik does well in impersonating both Garcia's thin, vulnerable tenor and his lead guitar style, while Rob Eaton is a bit less convincing, but still good at Bob Weir's gruff, resonant baritone. While any Deadhead would notice the difference after a couple of minutes, in short bursts the Dark Star Orchestra sounds a lot like the Grateful Dead, and that, of course, is the idea.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann