It was an immensely frigid night Thursday as Madison’s Barrymore Theatre’s marquee shined over its dingy surroundings. A sign of shelter, warmth and entertainment, a large group of people chatted while waiting casually outside the theatre’s main entrance. The sight was reminiscent of a line for an amusement park roller coaster ride.
Inside the Barrymore, brightly-colored lights danced around the dimly lit theater, and smiling faces, some young, some old, bobbed collectively amid a haze as the band jammed into the night. The music, characterized by an eclectic mix of folk, rock and psychedelia, encouraged, for most, a consensual — for the remaining, an inevitable — surrender. The atmosphere, marked by jubilation and carefreeness, functioned as a proponent of what one might deem the quintessential live music show.
Dark Star Orchestra, the band playing, requires no introduction to Deadheads and is widely recognized as the definitive Grateful Dead cover band. Performing in front of a monstrously large, variegated tapestry, the band recreates the phenomenon of experiencing the Dead.
It is worth mentioning Dark Star Orchestra separates itself from the innumerable Dead cover bands by recreating past Grateful Dead shows. Not only do they mimic historic set lists song by song, but they also take the stylistic distinctions of the Grateful Dead’s various musical eras into consideration. The point isn’t to reproduce a show note for note. However, with laudable improvisation and a noteworthy ability to play off each other’s cues, the members of Dark Star Orchestra come reasonably close.
It is this effortful showing that counts with Grateful Dead fans, not to mention the playfulness exhibited by the band as they charm their audience throughout the show. While Rob Barraco, Dark Star Orchestra’s keyboardist, teased lighthearted melodies between songs, Kevin Rosen, the band’s bassist, nodded to several members of the crowd, acknowledging their presence and part in the experience. With eyes closed and arms swaying to the rhythm, Lisa Mackey, Dark Star Orchestra’s complement to the Grateful Dead’s Donna Jean Godchaux, sang beautifully and danced freely in a unicorn-printed t-shirt.
Trying to grasp the state of the audience, the first set Dark Star Orchestra played served more or less as a way to sense where they could guide the crowd musically. Featuring a solid variety of covers including The Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” and Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” the set indicated to both well-informed Deadheads and ordinary attendees they were attending a unique show.
After a brief intermission, the band delved into what was to become a much higher energy set than the first. The highlight, a nonstop marathon — which nearly took up the entire second set — began with a catchy “Touch of Grey,” transcended into a fiery “Fire on the Mountain,” morphed into a hypnotic drum solo, evolved into a far-out space rock jam, segued into the feel-good tune “Gimme Some Lovin’,” transitioned into a poignant “China Doll,” progressed into a crowd-favorite “Throwing Stones” and ended with the American classic “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad.” As the band walked off the stage, the audience shouted and clapped approvingly in gratitude of the performance.
It wasn’t more than a minute or two before the group came back out with their faces displaying — to the insistent, cheering crowd — what could only be described as genuine humility. After explaining how the night’s performance was an original set list — both something that allows the group greater musical flexibility and something the group hadn’t done in Madison since 2009 — guitarist Rob Eaton thanked the audience for coming out and mentioned the band already couldn’t wait to return. Having wrapped up the night, the band began their encore, a first-class rendition of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.”
As the concert attendees departed into the blistering cold, the joyousness cultivated inside the Barrymore continued to pour itself into the streets through laughter and smiles. High fives were given, goodbyes were exchanged and hugs were shared. The ride was over.