Dark Star Jubilee Review
May 22-25, 2014, Thornville, OH
by Adrianne Nichols
photos by Itamar Gat
Anyone that is a part of ‘our’ community and goes to festivals knows the anticipation and excitement can be so overwhelming that even packing for it is fun. The Dark Star Jubilee was no exception for me as I began packing Tuesday. And when I checked the weather for the weekend, the excitement escalated. The forecast I read actually used the word ‘beautiful’, which I don’t believe I had ever seen before. Several of the bands showed Mother Nature appreciation, especially the ones who played previous Jubilees when the weather was less than cooperative. The weather and the festival as a whole lived up to my expectations and then some!
The festival opened with a high energy set from Ohio’s own The Werks. Keller Williams and his project More Than a Little brought some soulful funk next. I’ve seen Keller in many of his various projects and I have to say this was one of my favorites. Keller’s set saw the first appearance by Nicky Sanders from the Steep Canyon Rangers. Nicky brought his amazing fiddle work to several of the bands throughout the weekend. More Than a Little honored The Grateful Dead spirit of the weekend by covering “West L.A. Fadeaway” and “Sampson and Delilah.” The festival’s namesake was next and they chose an elective set for the first night. A trained ear could identify this as an elective set form the opening “Box of Rain” and “Til the Morning Comes” as these songs were never played together at the same show. Dark Star Orchestra never ceases to amaze me with what they do. Every member gives 110% every show. You can feel their love and passion for the music and that is surely what drives them to their perfection. Nicky Sanders came out for several songs, including a sick “Mama Tried > Big River” combo. The second set was pure heat. During “Space” Lisa came out and recited “Jabberwocky,” a nonsensical poem from Lewis Carroll’s novel “Through the Looking-glass, and What Alice Found There.” Admittedly I discovered this through DSO’s website; at the time I had no clue what she was saying. But Lisa could jabber in Chinese and it would still be entertaining and make your heart smile. A monster set-ending “Dear Mr. Fantasy > The Other One > Morning Dew” left attendees picking their jaws up off the ground. The Devil Makes Three wrapped up the first night and we retreated to camp to watch for meteors. (DSO had announced there was supposed to be a visible meteor shower that night, unfortunately we never saw any)
One of my favorite things about the Legend Valley venue is that you can camp really close to the stage. I am never one to carry my camping stuff, but I knew this festival was worth the extra work. I packed as light as I could, and knowing that Disco Pizza was there helped me reduce my usual food supply. Another bonus of Legend Valley is side by side stages and no over-lapping sets. So I was able to hear every, single note of music played over the three days. The music started at 11:00 Saturday, but since I could hear the music from camp, I conserved my sun exposure time until The Everyone Orchestra. Conductor Matt Butler exudes a palpable energy and extracts the same from the rotating cast of participants. For the Jubilee, that cast included several members of DSO (Mattson, Barraco, Mackey and Koritz) as well as members of Yonder Mountain String Band, Toubab Krewe and The Ragbirds. The Everyone Orchestra creates a unique experience for the listener and the players, and you can tell how much they enjoy it by their ever -present smiles during shows. DSO chose 11/6/77 from Binghamton, NY for Saturday’s performance, which Rob Eaton noted four band members attended. Seventy-seven shows are always a treat! I believe Bob Weir spoke once of running away to join the circus, and Saturday’s show was a circus-themed show if there ever was one. “It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns” they sang as stilt performers came out during “The Music Never Stopped” and fire twirlers performed their magic during “Fire on the Mountain.” After the ’77 show was complete, Eaton announces there were still twenty-one minutes left of their timeslot that they intended to fill. And this is exactly what I mean about DSO always giving it their all. They want to fill that twenty-one minutes as much as you want them to. The first ‘filler’ was “Baby What You Want” by Jimmy Reed. It’s not too often that I hear a song the Dead covered that I am unfamiliar with, but that one had me referencing my Deadbase. The Beatles’s “Dear Prudence” wraps up the second DSO show of the weekend. Attendees were treated to two late night sets on Saturday, Galactic and Yonder Mountain String Band, the latter of which was accompanied by legendary Dobro player Jerry Douglas.
I awoke Sunday to yet another gorgeous morning and went to grab a festy must-have, a fruit smoothie. I brought one back for the husband, who was still enjoying being able to sleep in. I curled back up for a minute, and soaked in all the sounds and smells around me that make me feel at home at a festival; the gentle thumping of drums in the background, the random yell from the guy that is still awake from the night before, the smell of fresh air mixed with coffee, grilled cheese and the fading smell of smoke from last night’s fires. These sensory stimulations bring me great peace and comfort. This is my home, these are my people, I’m supposed to be here. While watching DSO I get the same feeling. The music of The Grateful Dead speaks to me in a language I hear and understand. It is my solace in a world that sometimes offers little. The Jubilee is the escape I need and spend my life chasing.
The sun is shining and I am ready to take on the last day of music that the Jubilee has to offer. Since it’s the last day and Rumpke Mountain Boys play at 1:00, I decide hot dogs are a suitable festy breakfast this morning. Rumpke has a unique energy about them that I love. Although I’m saddened to hear I missed their usual late- late night campground set because it was in the VIP area last night. Orgone was one of the few bands on the lineup that I hadn’t seen yet, but they came highly recommended from a friend. They lived up to expectations with their booty- shaking funk. Chicago’s Cornmeal kept the vibe going and proved that personnel changes haven’t slowed them down a bit. Anders Osborne was another new artist for me. I’ve streamed some of the shows he’s done with Phil Lesh, but seeing his solo work solidified him as an artist to watch in my book. The Wailers performed several classics including “Trenchtown Rock”, “Stir It Up” and “Buffalo Soldier”.
I find what has become ‘my spot’ for the weekend for the final performance of DSO. The last performance is always bittersweet; you know it’s going to be amazing, but it also means you’re closer to going home. Each night I check the equipment to get a clue of what to expect, and thankfully we got the full band every night. Sunday was another elective set, which I have grown to really love and appreciate. When I first started seeing Dark Star I always hoped for a Dead setlist. Having never seen them before Jerry passed, I felt this was the closest way to capture that essence. But as my love and appreciation for what they do grows I have come to prefer the elective sets. I love the element of surprise. I also love the variety of it, like Lisa doing a song The Dead performed only while Donna Jean Godchaux wasn’t a member. The first set brings songs from every era of the Dead’s catalogue. Mister Charlie was a highlight for me and exemplifies s the greatness that is Rob Barraco. An insane “Help> Slip> Shakedown Street” kicks off the second set. Things get weird the second set… weird in a good way of course. A smoking “Viola Lee Blues” closes the second set and there isn’t a face in the crowd that isn’t grinning. A crowd sing-along “Ripple” sends everyone on their way with the hairs on their arms standing up. No late-night gives you time to reflect with your friends on the highlights of the weekend. As we sit around the fire and old and new friends approach to enjoy a moment of the warm glow, the thoughts are mostly the same: Dark Star Orchestra is simply amazing. I feel so fortunate to have found them when I did to enjoy all these years and for all the people that work tirelessly to make event s like the Jubilee happen.