by Contributing Writer Andrew Pietkiewicz
Sometimes genre bias defines people, a punk is a punk because of the box people sort them into, metalheads be metalheads, and for those that love the Dead, the misconception persists. These views are not as concrete as they may appear. When you end up on the floor, you are no longer an individual, but among the void: the faceless, nameless mass of happy shuffling, ecstatic flailing and rhythmic flowing of one body. If there need be any proof, just close your eyes and listen.
On Saturday May 19th, grateful ears gathered together to pay tribute to a movement that has shaped and continues to mold generations. Penn’s Peak, in Jim Thorpe was the destination in which these bodies found a meeting place. The weather be damned, and still people came to celebrate—to claim their place upon the hardwood and pay tribute—together, along with the Dark Star Orchestra.
As a self-proclaimed punk, I was never raised with The Dead. My early learnings in music were based in the dissatisfied harmony of The Clash, the snarky criticism of NOFX, and to a degree, the mumbled snarl of the Ramones. A toddler bent on rebelling from a broken system they couldn’t even understand yet, in that vein I lingered well beyond adolescence—never knowing much beyond the niche save for sparks of reggae and ska. There was soul, and there were horns. Horns speak truth, because if you’re a liar, it sounds awful.
It was somewhere in college where I was finally introduced to the phenomenon known as The Grateful Dead, and in that introduction, a pattern of expansive influence and integration soon became clear. There was The Dead, and soon, there was inspiration. Which brings it back to The Dark Star Orchestra.
This is a collective of musicians who have sought to provide past, current, and future generations of people with a means to listen to, what many do claim as, the favorite sons of American Blues and Rock and Roll. Selecting sets just as they had first been performed and recreating the atmosphere in such a manner that one might have forgotten that they were listening to Dark Star and not The Dead themselves. I may not have the tongue to speak with, not being as passionate as a vast many other, but when energy is right, it is something hard to mistake. It this case, The Dead were channeled, their vibrations tangible, the passion of the crowd, iridescent.
To the uninitiated, the chorus of the dance floor can be pretty intimidating. All these people know this music, all these people live this music, all these people bleed this music. I knew nothing. There exists an ever-growing lineage of those who yearn for the Everyday Miracle, the Rambling Rose, Begonias draped in Scarlet. The delight first heard 50 years ago, still as vibrant in 2018 as the recently installed bulbs of the spotlight.
The insecurity of not knowing the words, of being seen as an outsider, quickly dissipates as the crescendo of soul builds toward explosion. We were all in awe. The better days remembered, the not so much, left to shiver out in the fog. There was a great loving feeling permeating throughout. Not only among the fans, but also within the band. Respect to those that inspired them to pick up instruments in the first place, a homage to what has been, to what will be. The greatest moment being, personally, was opening my eyes to see all six men on stage with their eyes shut, resonating more than playing. It felt like they were leading us to the harmony of one collective dream, one where the heart meets the sublime, dispels fear and transcends time.
The Dark Star Orchestra shredded Penn’s Peak into a barely recognizable version of itself, at least for a little while. All great shows must end, but they end for the night, and as long as Dark Star and those inspired by The Grateful Dead keep it up, the music will forever play on.