Written by Bill Whiting
Photos by Scott Preston
Dark Star Orchestra’s Jubilee Music Festival & Campout at Legend Valley in Thornville, Ohio on May 24-26 had a thematic focus that celebrated the legacy of the Grateful Dead. Beginning on Friday, May 24, Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass graced the main “Dark Star” stage with a set full of high, lonesome sounds, replete with intricate soloing from banjo picker Michael Bont, guitarist Dave Bruzza, and mandolin master Paul Hoffman. Greensky Bluegrass proved to be the perfect opening act as they culled material from the underrated 2006 release Tuesday Letter, 2008’s wonderful project Five Interstates, and 2011’s definitive document, Handguns.
Dark Star Orchestra chose to recreate the July 10, 1981 Grateful Dead concert from St. Paul Civic Center Arena in St. Paul, MN. Bassist Kevin Rosen shined throughout Friday’s two sets, and his rumbling bass lines infused “Loser,” “Ramble on Rose,” and “Let it Grow” with a sense of vibrant urgency. Rob Eaton and Jeff Mattson played brilliantly off of one another on the singing one-two punch of “Estimated Prophet” into the loose, swinging “Eyes of the World.” Keyboardist Rob Barraco delicately conveyed the ethereal atmosphere inherent inside of “China Doll.” And, Dark Star Orchestra rounded out Friday evening with rousing versions of “Good Lovin'” and “Casey Jones.” Saxophonist and flutist Karl Denson followed on “The Other One” side stage with a riveting set of improvisational glory that had Jubilee festival patrons in a state of dancing ecstasy. The Mickey Hart Band jammed into the early morning hours of Saturday with a set that peaked with a molten take on the Grateful Dead classic, “Fire on the Mountain.” Saturday, May 25 started with an uplifting set of Jerry Garcia Band tunes rendered by the Very Garcia Band. Lee Owen, Roddy Puckett, Brad Slutskin and Dino English had just the right amount of pop in their swagger on “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Backup singers Jenny Adkins and Katherine Adams mixed in a little bit of gospel to make it feel like church on a Sunday morning. Matt Reynolds continued the Saturday afternoon with a striking set that included “Lucky Old Sun,” and had backing support from Charles Hedgepath on guitar, Rob Barraco on bass and Rob Koritz on percussion.
A highlight for many was the pairing of Grateful Dead Hour host David Gans with the Rumpke Mountain Boys. Gans led the boys through a playful set of originals and covers, including an open ended frolic through the Dead’s “Shakedown St.” The Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson took the Other One stage with an eclectic set that zeroed in on the Grateful Dead singer’s powerful vocal delivery on “New Speedway Boogie” and The Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown.” Mattson’s guitar solos were on fire during the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” and the kicked back, spacey tempo of “Crazy Fingers.” The New Orleans Suspects featuring Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett of Little Feat lit up the Dark Star stage with a blues jazz rock gumbo on the party ready jams, “Hey Pocky Way,” and Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” and “Dixie Chicken.” Yonder Mountain String Band delivered the goods with searing bluegrass prowess on the Talking Heads’ “Girlfriend is Better” and George Harrison’s “Only a Northern Song.” YMSB’s rhythmic fury on “Natchez Whistle” into the barnstorming “Peace of Mind” was a show stopping moment at the Jubilee. DSO drummer Rob Koritz added locomotion to Yonder Mountain String Band’s propulsion on “Angel” and “Spanish Harlem Incident.” Dark Star Orchestra’s epic Saturday night gig closed out the proceedings on the main stage with an original set that included double stuffed song sandwiches of “Help on the Way- Slipknot- Franklin’s Tower,” “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain” and “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider.”
Sunday Afternoon picked up with a two way musical conversation between keyboardist Melvin Seals & JGB. Cincinnati’s Rumpke Mountain Boys shined in the spotlight on the Other One stage as Adam Copeland on acoustic guitar combined with Jason Wolf on banjo, Ben Gourley on mandolin and J.D. Westmoreland on upright bass to produce a sharp, fast paced romp around old time bluegrass laced with fresh, jazzy time signatures. The Wailers summoned the legacy of Bob Marley’s repertoire, and were anchored by the bass heavy leanings of Aston “Family Man” Barrett. Their island harmonies traveled throughout the camp grounds of Legend Valley. Dark Star Orchestra chose to perform another original set for their closing night at the Jubilee, and it was a whopper. Mattson and Eaton tore into the opening of “Saint Stephen- The Eleven- Cryptical Envelopment- The Other One- Cryptical Envelopment- Alligator.” Rosen’s pounding bass notes echoed against the hills and trees during the funky “Dancing in the Streets” and “Sittin’ On Top of the World.” Plus, it seemed appropriate that the band would move towards the end of the festival with a definitive take on the heady, wide ranging Dead nugget, “Dark Star.” One of the best festivals of 2013, the Dark Star Jubilee Music Festival & Camp Out left one in rabid anticipation of it’s return in 2014.