A Deadhead’s comparison of Dark Star Orchestra and Cubensis
They may 'sound' like the Dead, but Cubensis plays like the Dead!

Yes, the recent Dark Star Orchestra show at the House of Blues did rock. But, it is not in my nature to leave it at that. Maybe I am just trying to get over the #$!??! ticket price... Last night was my first time to see DSO. I have heard good things about them, all justified. I was curious about their strange approach to song selection (playing an entire show all the way through). Last night they had a bit of time left over and played a couple extra tunes. They make a good sound. Still, I was curious about playing all the show. Is it that they view the show as a multi-movement piece of work, like a symphony? Or is it just that they fight on stage over song selection, and solved the problem by doing whole shows? A friend said that she felt much of DSO's work (especially the jams) "felt contrived, as though you felt what every note was going to be." She was saying that the very essence of the Dead's work was spontaneity. If you take away that spontaneity, you have gutted the work and all that is left is the frame.

DSO is very good, no doubt. Their lead guitar does a nice Jerry voice too. The Weir-fellow (don't know his name, but there can be no mistaking who I mean) really has Weir's early years down pat. I say early years because Weir is still several jumps ahead of him. But, he does a better Weir than Rich Little does Nixon. And that is no small thing; yet, it seems that Cubensis has twice the “Bobby” guitarist. Perhaps what I am seeing is DSO over emphasizing creating the show, whereas Cubensis is making it their own. Perhaps that is to be expected: after 15 years, they start to make the tunes their own. I don't think Cubensis, when playing, is particularly concerned about making it sound exactly like the Dead. I think the Weir fellow is. This may be part of the difference. Garcia once emphasized bringing your own style to your music. He said, "Learn how to play the music you like, then bring it your own style." Obviously, this is something that Cubensis does far superior to DSO, and it is not just that I know one of them better than the other. The DSO rhythm guitarist seemed content to be stuck somewhere in the seventies all night. Is it part the goal (make it your own vs. make it sound like Weir), and part that Cubensis has such a skilled guitarist? Could this be why Cubensis seems to have more fun playing on stage? They are making it their own vs. working on re-creating it? I don't know. I think a big part is that Justin's a playing freak who just can't get enough. Lol, Yea!!

My other observation is that the DSO did not seem to be having a great time. It was a great sound, but they did not seem to be having a fun time. Maybe they were, and I just missed it. Seemed like a night's work. Tour is a bitch. The Weir fellow seemed to be working hard at having a good time, but not really doing so. He looked like if he won the lottery, he would not keep doing it. The bass player sure did not appear to be having a good time. Unfortunately, it overshadowed that he was doing some good passages. He looked like he was putting in hours on a Ford assembly line all night. He was certainly not being aggressive. Was this because they were not choosing from song to song what they wanted to do? On the other hand, Cubensis bassist Larry Ryan generally looks like a kid that just opened his first pogo stick on Christmas morning. And is usually more musically aggressive than DSO was last night. "Last night"… I can't know a band after one night (errr, one set).

I could be missing it because I don't know these guys like I do Cubensis. If one watches Steve Harris drumming, he frequently takes on that same "placid" look that Kreutzman sometimes gets. He will sometimes even seem almost bored. But, it is misleading. If you watch Steve's drumming, you can see he is having a good time. I did enjoy watching DSO's drummers coordinating together. They seemed to be enjoying what they were doing last night. Still, ultimately, I would prefer to watch the singular miracles of percussion that Harris puts together. Fact is, Harris is one hell'uva drummer. The boy is world class. Musical surprises are Steve's forte. (Cubensis “does it” with ONE drummer).

Well, if I am going to compare, I "might as well" go off the deep end and compare Craig Marshall and DSO's lead, who's very good, was DSO's most upbeat guitarist last night, and is certainly no better than Marshall. DSO's lead tended to stay at the top of the register. His sound, although so lovely at times, was also, at times, high and thin. This would be, only in part, equipment and mixing. And he spends a lot of time there. Craig is more fluid in the middle of the register. This difference was quite striking.

Unhappily, I did miss the entire first set. I thought somebody said 9:00 pm. They started right at 8:00. Wow, $24, plus $8 to park (yea, I know, I am a moron. I was in a hurry), and then $5.50 per beer. Excuse me, but is there a "kick me" sign on my back? I can spend four nights with Cubensis for what one night of DSO cost me.

Speculation on this point ran rampant last night. It was suggested that Cubensis could charge more if they did not play two or three days a week in the same area, every week. It is called The Tread Mill Tour. Beats the hell out of having Cubensis around once every few months. But, DSO's $24? This means Cubensis can cut back on their schedule, play only once per month, and still get paid the same? What is wrong with THAT picture? Wow, I am GRATEFUL for the present state of things. Can you imagine if the “Treadmill Tour” seriously hit the road? All that fine music and kynd folk, only once every couple of months (if you make all the dates)…? I am grateful for the Treadmill Tour.

I guess a lot of things go into being the best anything: how well you do it, how often you do it, and how infectious your sense of fun is doing it. Yes, my friends, we seem to have, nearly all to ourselves, the best $6 band in town. We also have the best 'dead cover band' (gawd, I hate that phrase) in the land.

THANK YOU, Cubensis for everything. I am grateful. To the core.

Will I go back to DSO when they are in town? Yea… although I may have to take out a mortgage for the fucking ticket price. I will have to check my back for that 'kick me' sign. What do ya do? Larry Ryan, gracious soul that he is, said several times last night, "This is really fun. What a great night." And he was right. For lots of reasons.

Of course, it is not about comparing musicians, or music, or people, or parking lots. It's about what you are doing and whether it rocks your soul. And last night did rock, for lots of reasons. Why am I bothering to extrapolate on all this? I think it is really my long, drawn out way of saying 'thank you' to everyone. Not just Cubensis, but everyone. All of you fine musicians.

But, I should not joke here because it does not emphasize that I mean what I say here, to the core. As the saying goes, 'from my lips to God's ear', and I am grateful to the core. The biographical film of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's work together, Grateful Dawg, is great because of the many interview clips in it. One of the clips is an interview of the older, country fellow that owns the mid-West place where Garcia and Grisman met almost forty years ago, having each gone there to see Bill Monroe, king of bluegrass. He comments in the interview that the parking lot was a scene. Everyone would meet, he said, in the parking lot at set break, and after, out would come guitars (and banjos), and music would happen. A lot of friendships, he said, were made that way. Including Garcia and Grisman. The times they are not completely a'changing.

Hasta, John (Kalichela)
from web sources