Dark Star Orchestra returns to Penn’s Peak on Nov. 25 for annual Thanksgiving Eve concert
After 10 years, some relationships fall apart and both parties go their separate ways thinking “please forget you knew my name.” Inevitably one of the parties would look at it as a landscape being empty if the other half was gone. After all, a decade could be a mighty long time to finally realize that the picture-perfect silver lining was tainted by a touch of gray.
Luckily for Penn’s Peak and nationally acclaimed Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra, those Dead-inspired thoughts won’t be crossing anyone’s mind any time soon, as 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of their outstanding working relationship.
“Sometime in 2004 we saw some advertisements for a band called Dark Star Orchestra in the greater Wilkes-Barre area and we were intrigued by what they were doing,” said Penn’s Peak vice president and promoter Craig Stelling. “This was about the time that the tribute/recreation thing was starting to gain steam in the marketplace, at least for us. DSO has been part of our programming schedule since December 2005 and it actually would have been the previous year, but that’s around the time Scott (Larned) passed away and my recollection is that we had to reschedule our original date.”
Since their inaugural visit to the Jim Thorpe hotspot, DSO has returned at least once every year. Starting in 2006, DSO has hosted an annual Thanksgiving Eve party which has become one of the venue’s guarantee sell-outs. For DSO guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mattson, this year marks his fifth time celebrating the tradition. He said he always looks forward to seeing the venue pop up on their tour itinerary.
“I love Penn’s Peak. It’s got one of the best vibes of all the places that we play,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place just to start with – all that wood, and that big room. The energy in that place is just like second to none; especially the night before Thanksgiving when everybody’s home and ready to have a good time. It’s a wonderful tradition.”
From the venue’s perspective, the tradition has been a welcome addition to its yearly roster.
“Our first Thanksgiving Eve play was November of 2006 and we haven’t looked back since,” Stelling said. “It’s become an integral part of our fall/early winter season. The band, crew, fans and facility have certainly embraced that date over the years. Some years it hasn’t been easy – falling the day before Thanksgiving when a lot of people like to travel home for the holidays, but luckily we’re always in a great position to host the event.”
The way the band is treated at the venue reflects during the performance. High energy and big smiles bounce from the stage to crowd and back. While DSO’s past performances at Penn’s Peak has covered nearly all the Grateful Dead eras its fans have grown to love (Spring ’77, Summer ’89, early ’73), there was always a noticeable omission of a certain time period that wasn’t readily available until Mattson came on board in 2010 – the Pigpen era (1965-1972).
“I don’t think they did anything from the Pigpen era, because no one was up to taking on the Pigpen material,” Mattson said. “Then Rob Barraco (keys/vocals) embraced it and really has done a terrific job with it. I came in and I was more knowledgeable about the early stuff – ’69, ’70, ’71 – and it was good because Lisa Mackey (vocals) took up the harmonica, so she could do the Pigpen harmonica parts as well. It takes two people to do the job of Pigpen, but we get it done anyway.”
It’s not just the fans who enjoy the way DSO delivers the Dead’s music to a new generation. Stelling – who has worked with other Dead related bands including Bob Weir’s RatDog, the Mickey Hart Band. Phil Lesh and Friends and Furthur – has high praise for the way DSO honors the music.
“The way they recreate a live Grateful Dead show is remarkable, and it’s really a terrific way for people that were never able to catch the Grateful Dead to experience one,” he said.
Mattson is secretive about what is on the agenda for Nov. 25, but is quick to point out the reputation Penn’s Peak has gained for its love of DSO makes the band work a bit harder to thank the fans who have welcomed the decade old tradition.
“I will say this much: we know that’s one of our big shows of the year,” he said. “We put a lot of care into thinking about what we’re going to do there. There’s usually a really big crowd there, so we know it’s going to be high energy. We’re gonna be pumped up and the crowd’s going to be pumped up, so we’re gonna make sure we have a show there that will reflect that.”
For Stelling, the show, like every Thanksgiving eve, has taken on a family feel as he looks forward to seeing everyone for their yearly holiday party.
“The interaction with their band members, crew, agency and management has been extraordinary,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to see them come through the venue – kind of like your second family, especially around the holidays.”
Ryan O’Malley is a music writer and photographer who has contributed to the Weekender since 2007.
IF YOU GO
What: Dark Star Orchestra
Where: Penn’s Peak, Maury Road, Jim Thorpe
When: 8 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 25
Cost: $30 at the door
More info: www.darkstarorchestra.net