The Grateful Dead are one of my all-time favorite bands. I love the stories contained in their lyrics, the intricate arrangements of their songs and their willingness to jump off of an improvisational cliff in search of psychedelic rock bliss. I love their ability to easily shift between passages of light and darkness while crafting fleeting musical moments that are as beautiful as they are chaotic.
Alas, I was just 5 years old when lead guitarist and bandleader Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, so I never got to catch the Grateful Dead in concert. There are other musicians and bands from the past that I would do terrible things to see—Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Talking Heads just to name a few—but missing the Grateful Dead is by far my biggest musical regret.
Fortunately for young (and old) Deadheads like me, there are musical festivals like the Dark Star Jubilee. Because it takes place at Legend Valley, a historic music venue thirty miles outside of Columbus, going to the Dark Star Jubilee is like taking a time machine to an original Grateful Dead concert, except with cellphones and a 21st century light show. Featuring two side-by-side stages with nonstop music by nationally touring bands, the Jubilee is headlined by Dark Star Orchestra, the preeminent Grateful Dead tribute band.
Checking into the Jubilee and setting up camp was a breeze—we were inside and had our campsite set-up within an hour of reaching the festival grounds. With the exception of my Radio Flyer wagon’s back axle completely falling off while hauling gear to the campsite, it was the easiest festival set-up I’ve ever had. We met up with some old friends from college for a few campsite beers before heading down to the Main Stage for the opening set of the weekend by Dayton-based jam-band The Werks.
A high-energy quartet, The Werks combines aspects of rock, funk, bluegrass and electronica. The musicians are all extremely talented and venture into improvisational territory in nearly every song. I enjoyed their set, particularly the more funky segments that eschewed the electronic music influence, with my personal highlight being their spirited cover of “Peaches en Regalia” by the late Frank Zappa.
Up next was Keller Williams with his new funk ensemble More Than a Little. Despite minor sound issues, Williams and his band funked their way through a set of originals and covers that included “West LA Fadeaway” by the Grateful Dead and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” by Tom Petty. Check out my interview with Keller Williams here for further details on his music.
Dark Star Orchestra is known for recreating exact concert set lists from historic Dead shows, but in their Friday night headlining show they wrote their own set list that included “Sugaree,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Eyes of the World,” and a spirited cover of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” I especially enjoyed the extended and intense minor key jamming of “The Other One” and the sing-a-long encore of “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon. Nicky Sanders, fiddle player for the Steep Canyon Rangers (who perform with actor Steve Martin), added high-energy picking to numerous songs throughout the night.
We walked back to the campsite and enjoyed the late night show by The Devil Makes Three from the cozy confines of our camping chairs. I really love The Devil Makes Three’s original brand of outlaw country music and their set was the perfect way to unwind after the mind-melting jamming of Dark Star Orchestra. Their song “Graveyard” was a highlight of the set, a demented lullaby to slowly ease the Jubilee to sleep.
We woke up on Saturday to another day of perfect weather—it was about eighty degrees and sunny for the entire weekend. We poured up a couple of homemade pre-mixed Bloody Mary’s (a music festival necessity) and headed to the MainStage for a performance by Jeff Mattson, Rob Barraco & Friends.
Mattson and Barraco play guitar and keyboards, respectively, in Dark Star Orchestra. Their Saturday set featured some excellent extended jamming and renditions of several songs that I did not recognize. Mattson’s playing impressed me as always—he has an uncanny ability to play aggressively constructed riffs but with a light touch and tone.
Grand Rapids, Michigan-based band Ultraviolet Hippopotamus took the stage next, delighting the crowd with their northern brand of jam-rock. Their set reminded me of the Werks set with lots of guitar theatrics, high-energy rhythms and a heavy electronic influence.
The rest of the day was filled in with short sets by The Ragbirds, Toubab Krewe, the Everyone Orchestra and New Riders of the Purple Sage. New Riders provided my favorite set of the afternoon with their relaxed, breezy California country-rock.
Saturday night was again headlined by Dark Star Orchestra, who picked a blistering set list from 1977, arguably the greatest year of the Grateful Dead. The show featured classic cuts like “Jack Straw,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Not Fade Away,” and “St. Stephen.” DSO’ second set on Saturday was their best of the weekend, showcased by an excellent jam segue between “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” and an extended version of “Truckin’,” which is one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs. The band finished with a triple encore of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Baby Watcha Want Me To Do,” and “Dear Prudence.”
We skipped New Orleans funk masters Galactic to walk back to the campsite and recharge for the impending late-night performance by Yonder Mountain String Band. Galactic’s sound has evolved a lot over the years, and their set this night sounded like the soundtrack to a dark cabal ritual. Their saxophone player stole the show, providing spooky horn lines that were as psychedelic as they were funky.
Yonder Mountain String Band recently parted ways with frontman and mandolin player Jeff Austin, but apparently that is a good thing. Saturday’s late-night performance was by far the best Yonder Mountain String Band show I have seen after catching over ten performances by them at various festivals. Joined by legendary dobro player Jerry Douglas and virtuoso mandolin player John Frazier, the Colorado-based bluegrass band tore their way through a two-hour set that included “Blue Collar Blues,” “I Second That Emotion,” and an amazing version of “On The Run > Looking Back Over My Shoulder > On The Run.” I didn’t used to be a huge Yonder Mountain fan, but this show converted me—it was my favorite performance of the weekend and I can’t wait to see what these guys do with their new lineup.
Sunday morning started with Bloody Mary’s yet again as we rallied to the stage for a performance by AJ Ghent. A third-generation musician from Florida, Ghent is a master of the pedal steel guitar whose music sounds like a southern version of Prince. His upbeat set was the perfect wake-up to the third and final day of the Jubilee.
The day continued with performances by Akron-based jam-band Aliver Hall and Cincinnati-based bluegrass band Rumpke Mountain Boys. I have been seeing Rumpke for almost 5 years, dating back to my freshman year of college, so seeing them on the MainStage was great. Not only was their set fantastic, but I was happy to see these hard-working and talented musicians playing for a huge crowd.
Donna The Buffalo, Orgone and Cornmeal continued the day’s festivities with sets of Americana rock, West Coast funk, and bluegrass, respectively. Orgone impressed me in particular—their unique brand of funk inspired a massive afternoon dance party.
I was extremely excited to catch Anders Osborne, one of my favorite active songwriters and musicians. Hailing from New Orleans by way of Sweden, this slide-guitar master rocked the festival with heavy versions of his songs “Black Tar” and “Dancing in the Wind.” The songs frequently deconstructed into psychedelic slide guitar freak outs with Anders flailing across the stage wailing on his axe. I was left wanting more from this amazing musician and I will definitely be checking him out again in the near future.
Sunday night finished up with a performance by Bob Marley’s former backing band The Wailers performing Marley’s greatest hits album “Legend” in its entirety followed by yet another two-set performance by Dark Star Orchestra. DSO’s Sunday performance was my least favorite of the weekend but included great renditions of “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider,” “Ramble on Rose,” “Shakedown Street” and “Viola Lee Blues.” We ended the night and the festival chilling next to the campfire with the encore of “Ripple” slowly sending us off to bed.
All in all, the 3rd annual Dark Star Jubilee was a huge success. Perfect weather, incredible music and a great crowd made for a hassle-free weekend that I will never forget. As of now, Dark Star Jubilee is the best music festival I have attended in Ohio and I will definitely be going back in the future if I can. Long live the Grateful Dead!
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