Dark Star Orchestra at the Majestic Theater
Detroit, February 9, 2012
Detroit in February is cold. Not necessarily a place you want to visit. But on a windy and bitter Thursday night, music hungry deadheads converged on the Majestic Theater in Detroit. Dark Star Orchestra was in town. And the audience got what they came for: two sets of well articulated, passionately played Grateful Dead music. A little bit of summer for a short 3 hours to help us through the tail end of a Michigan winter.
It was my first time at the Majestic Theater in Detroit. Despite the cold and the wind, the line into the venue was practically around the block at its longest, right after they opened the doors. In reality, the long line wasn’t actually to get in. It was to get a wristband if you wanted to drink (the show was 18 and over). At least in Michigan, people are willing to tolerate a little blast of cold if it means they can get their drink on the rest of night.
I got in early enough that I got to see the venue floor relatively empty. Like any place with a bar and live music, it wasn’t the cleanest place in the world. And it’s pretty drab inside. No balcony, no architectural touches to marvel at. To top it off, without a balcony or a graded ground floor, there are really no good sight lines to the stage unless you’re pretty close to the front.
That said, once the music gets going, the Majestic is a nice venue. The sound is pretty balanced, not a lot of reverb off the walls, and it accommodates a crowd of 1,600+ while keeping easy access to the bars, which line the back wall and one side of the venue. Never a long line when you need a thirst quencher.
The set lists for this show are outstanding. There’s not a “I think I’m going to go get a beer” song in the bunch. The band kicked off the first set with Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” a common opener for the Dead. This was followed by a rockin’ “Sugaree,” then Bobby’s country masterpiece, “Mexicali Blues.”
With those song selections, it felt like a 77 show to me at that early stage. Maybe that’s because I had been listening to the 1977 Mosque show, which was just released as Dave’s Picks, Vol 1, in my car on the way to the show. In any event, that turned out not to be the case. It was actually a show from 1973 – March 22 at Utica Memorial Auditorium. Just weeks after Pigpen died, and during Mickey Hart’s hiatus from the band. It was a transitional year in Grateful Dead history. Pigpen was gone, the repertoire was expanding in several different directions, and they were still adjusting to Mickey’s absence.
Both set lists had a strong country flavor to them, beginning with “Mexicali Blues” as the third song in the first set, which also included the George Jones classic “The Race is On” and Marty Robbin’s “El Paso.” The second set rounds things out with “Big River” plus “Me and My Uncle.”
And it wasn’t just a country celebration, of course. The first set crescendoed with a “China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider” sequence followed by a “Playin’ In The Band” that left the crowd exhausted and ready for the set break. And the second set was dominated by a rocking “Truckin’ -> The Other One -> Eyes of The World” sequence, which wound down with a soothing “China Doll.”
“You Ain’t Woman Enough” was a particular treat. It was the biggest surprise of the show. I’ve always enjoyed Donna’s singing, but you don’t see her take the lead vocal spot very often. With Dark Star Orchestra, it’s always a treat when Lisa Mackey (who plays the Donna Jean Godchaux role in the band) gets center stage. So I’m glad they picked this particular show to cover. Really an inspired choice.
The band, as usual, was outstanding. Only one of the drummers — Dino English — played the show, since the original show was sans Mickey Hart. The arrangements are tight when they need to be, and they know how to inhabit a jam. And they’re good at bringing the crowd with them, which, to be fair, is pretty easy since we’re all a bunch of easily excitable deadheads, and we know all the cues, and all the lyrics.
This show was early in a 25 show tour for these guys. They tour relentlessly. Always on the road. I don’t know how they do it. Take a look at their tour schedule. Granted, some are 2013 dates, but still… These guys are one of the hardest working bands on the jam band touring circuit. And that’s saying a lot. They are extremely tight. Go see them if they’re coming around your way.
Photos by Mike Vasquez. See more here.