Southern New Jersey jam-band fans got a sampling of Jeff Mattson’s prodigious guitar-playing skills almost exactly one year ago, at the inaugural Tony Mart’s Rock ‘n’ Roots Jam in Somers Point on Jerry Garcia’s birthday, Aug. 1.
At the time Mattson was touring with former Grateful Dead singer Donna Jean Godchaux, who in 2007 teamed with him and members of the group he co-founded nearly 30 years previously, the Zen Tricksters. Since then Mattson and longtime Trickster multi-instrumentalist Rob Barraco have been on tour with Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) — the Grateful Dead tribute band that meticulously recreates set lists from specific concerts and different eras during the Dead’s 30-year history (1965-’95). DSO is a frequent visitor to the resort, and will perform at the Hilton’s Grand Theater on Friday night, Aug. 6, starting at 9pm (doors open one hour prior). Tickets are $20.
Earlier this year, on the first leg of DSO’s 2010 tour, Mattson became the band’s lead guitarist, replacing co-founder John Kadlecik when Kadlecik was recruited by co-founding Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh to play lead for their band, Furthur. To further connect the dots, Barraco is also a past contributor to Weir’s solo band Ratdog, and a frequent touring member of Lesh’s solo band Phil and Friends, with which Mattson has also previously performed.
At the risk of antagonizing devout Deadheads, if Garcia was a more proficient lead guitarist than either Mattson or Kadlecik, it could not have been by a tremendously wide margin. Both are sensational. Joining Mattson in DSO are vocalist/rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton, vocalist/bassist Kevin Rosen, drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz, vocalist Lisa Mackey and Barraco as a vocalist/keyboardist. Mattson recently spoke with Atlantic City Weekly by phone.
The second leg of DSO's 2010 tour starts at the [15th annual] Gathering of the Vibes Festival [held in Bridgeport, Conn., through Aug. 1]. This is your first year as DSO’s fulltime lead guitarist, but have you had past experience playing at the Vibes festival?
I may be the only person who’s played every single Gathering of the Vibes, from 1996 until now. Last year it was with Donna Jean’s band, and two years before that it was with Donna Jean and the Tricksters. This year I’m doing double duty [DSO headlined on the festival’s opening day] because I’m playing for Donna Jean’s band too, so you might say I’m opening for myself.
How tough is it splitting your time between two bands?
DSO does play quite a bit. They have quite a few tour schedules, so I just have to fit in anything else in between. It’s a little different [performing with Donna Jean’s band] but I enjoy it. We do some Grateful Dead music but other stuff too, some original music. It’s just a smaller unit and a different experience. They’re both a lot of fun.
I saw on DSO's Web site that the band just recently started delving into the real early Dead stuff from the late 1960s. Why is that?
I’m not entirely sure, but I think it had to do with the fact that at some of those shows, the Dead actually had two keyboard players — Pigpen [Ron McKernan] and Tom Constanten — and also that Pigpen played harmonica and nobody in DSO played harmonica. We kind of broke through that wall back in the beginning of the year when we did a run of Europe ’72 shows, which were sort of similarly structured except in that case it was Keith Godchaux and Pigpen, and Rob Barraco could [acclimate to any combination]. And I’m pretty good at doing the ’69 stuff, so there was some enthusiasm for doing some of the earlier stuff when I came aboard. There’s some really powerful, visceral, psychedelic stuff from back then, so we figured why not access all the eras? And there’s a rumor going around that [Barraco] may even look into playing harmonica now. We’ll see about that.
DSO recreates the set lists exactly as they were played at a certain time and place, but the band still takes certain liberties where the improvisational aspects apply, right?
We’re doing these set lists from the various shows that the Dead played, and we’re trying to play the music true to the arrangements and vibe of that area. But, having said that, it would be ridiculous and impossible to do the shows note for note, and mostly it would be against the spirit of the music. It’s still completely improvised once you get past the nuts and bolts of the arrangements and the songs. What we try to have remain exactly the same is the set list and arrangements and the vibe that they played in that period.
Are there any personal projects you’re working on currently?
Somewhere down the line, and again limited to my time constraints, I want to do a CD with the Donna Jean Godchaux Band. We’re writing material for that, and I also have something I’m doing in October — a couple of shows we’re calling Mattson, Barraco and Friends. It will be me, Rob on bass — which he’s really fantastic at and not many people are aware of that — [drummer] Joe Chirco and [fiddle player] Jason Crosby. The idea of that band is to, without too much rehearsing, go out and do a lot of improvisational stuff, play some of the songs we all know, and see where we can take the music without any restraints at all.
Atlantic City’s proximity to two of the biggest East Coast hotbeds for Deadheads, New York City and Philadelphia, is primarily why smallish casino concert venues can draw sizable crowds with relatively little publicity when bands like Bob Weir’s Ratdog or Phil Lesh’s Phil and Friends visit the resort. But when the two Grateful Dead legends teamed up to form Furthur in 2009, surrounding themselves with other virtuoso musicians and quickly honing a tight-knit sound, tickets got gobbled up at a breakneck pace. Finding a Furthur ticket on the day of last February’s show at the Taj Mahal’s roughly 5,000-seat Mark G. Etess Arena was as tough...
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