Dark Star Orchestra’s mind meld: Grateful Dead tribute band appreciates minutiae of the jam masters

Jeff Mattson is the type of guy who could talk Grateful Dead all day, if time afforded it. The music of the iconic jam band is practically a component in the DNA of this Queens, N.Y.-based singer and guitarist, who learned his first Dead song, “Bertha” in his early teens.

“My first show was Long Island, 1973,” Mattson recalled. “I was hooked.”

It’s only fitting that Mattson is a popular member of the Dead’s extended family, lending his talents to a number of post-Garcia outfits including Phil Lesh and Friends, the Zen Trixters and the Dark Star Orchestra, the insanely popular tribute act that re-creates classic Dead concerts song-for-song. DSO, who returns to Deadhead-heavy State College on Dec. 4, has amassed a following almost as large and rabid as the Dead themselves, complete with groupies, vendors, tapers, archivists and even their own summer music festival.

Mattson fulfills the Jerry Garcia role of lead guitarist and frequent vocalist, though he does not consider himself the band leader in a traditional sense.

“Not like a musical director, no. Everyone does their part to push each jam along,” Mattson said. “Anyone can introduce a musical idea.”

DSO previously performed at the State Theatre in July 2010, re-creating an epochal Paris show from 1974. A real treat for this upcoming performance, however, would be an elective set list.

“On occasion, DSO will play two sets of songs of the group’s choosing,” Mattson said.

During these shows, Grateful Dead songs are re-imagined and re-appropriated in all sorts of colorful contexts. “Eyes of the World,” usually nestled in a second set, may open a show. Meanwhile, “Dark Star” might appear as an encore. Whereas the songs “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” were forever married as a medley in the Dead lexicon, DSO may pair the former with The Meters’ song “Hey Pockey Way.”

“There’s an element of surprise that the band and the audience enjoy,” Mattson said of the elective set lists. “Sometimes pairing different songs together is a trial-and-error process, but that’s what makes it fun.”

DSO’s success as a band goes beyond being able to proficiently play the Dead’s catalog (plus several handfuls of covers the Dead popularized), they must be cognizant of how certain songs changed and evolved through the years, as well.

“Take ‘New Minglewood Blues,’ ” Mattson said of an old-jug band standard the Dead recorded twice, in 1967 and 1978. “They changed the arrangement drastically. So, not only do you have to know the songs, you have to know how they evolved; you have to be familiar with all these little subtleties in the Grateful Dead minutia. DSO has different gear and instruments for particular eras. We set the stage certain ways if we’re performing a concert from a particular year. There’s a lot of pride in the amount of dedication and attention to detail the group puts forward.”