BRATTLEBORO — This Thursday, April 21 at 8 p.m. Jeff Mattson & Friends will return to the Stone Church to kick off a Green Mountain mini-tour just as live music is making a robust comeback in southern Vermont and throughout New England.
The group, which played at the Stone Church in 2018, explores the repertoire of Jerry Garcia and the Jerry Garcia Band (JGB), plus originals and other covers.
“We cover a lot of ground - definitely some Grateful Dead songs, but we steer toward JGB because of our lineup,” Mattson, when reached by phone recently, told The Commons.
“Plus, we play so much Grateful Dead with Dark Star Orchestra (DSO), it's fun to run down some other corridors when we get a chance,” he said. “Any song could erupt.”
Mattson has drawn praise from some musician peers for his ability to evoke the spirit of Jerry Garcia.
Marc Bode, guitarist/vocalist with the Deadheads MA - another Grateful Dead cover band - describes Mattson as “coming into it more than just playing the songs, but also stepping into character.”
“Jerry Garcia sang the way he played guitar, every note having passion and emotion with melody and emotional delivery, as a good guitarist will do with their solos,” Bode noted. “A lot of cover acts have the guitar work down but not the vocal ability or the characteristic delivery that I see from Jeff.”
Jeff Mattson & Friends includes Mattson on guitar and vocals, Dark Star Orchestra bandmates Rob Barraco on keys and vocals, Skip Vangelas on bass and vocals, and Lisa Mackey on vocals and harmonica, with drummer Tom Barraco.
All four nights of this mini-tour include “full two-set explorations of the vast instrumentality and influence of the music of Jerry Garcia and much more,” explains Mattson. “My bandmates accused me in the past of liking lots of sad, slow songs, and this time it will be more upbeat and more up tempo. That is my m.o. for this tour: to be a bit more uplifting and just bring some joy!”
Mattson typically brings six or seven guitars with him on tour with Dark Star Orchestra but for this run will use his “Frankenstein Stratocaster,” which is electronically set up like one of Jerry Garcia's guitars.
“We call it 'Mattsoncaster II,'” he said. “I don't think I will play acoustic guitar on this tour.”
Sitting at the helm of Dark Star Orchestra for the past 12 years, Mattson is “one of the jam scene's most lasting voices,” as described in his publicity materials.
His career spans decades and several bands, starting with the Zen Tricksters and the Volunteers. He then rose to national prominence with the Donna Jean Godchaux Band (DJGB) and Phil Lesh and Friends.
His songs are included on DJGB's latest release, Back Around (Heart of Gold Records, 2014), and his work is prominently featured on five other albums.
A return to live music
Mattson remarked about how fun it is to have three members of DSO with him on this musical journey.
“Rob, Lisa, and Skip are all great singers, and we take advantage of that with the Jeff Mattson & Friends line-up, where everyone will get to sing lead vocals,” he said.
“With DSO, we are playing with two drummers, which is a very formidable force,” he added.
In Jeff Mattson & Friends, they are also playing with Rob Barraco's son, Tom Barraco, “who has a very different style,” Mattson observed. “It's a little more stripped down and gives everyone more room to shine.”
When asked what it's like to play live music again after taking a hiatus at the beginning of the global health pandemic, Mattson said, “It's great!”
“We were kind of lucky in DSO in that we were one of the first groups back,” he said. ”We couldn't live on the bus in close quarters, so we booked these weekends of two shows in the same place where we could play socially distant outdoor shows.”
“At first people were in their cars, and we were on stage and we were looking at a parking lot,” Mattson recalled, calling it “amazing that we were able to eke out a living for ourselves.”
“We were playing before most other groups were out playing - we were lucky,” he continued. “It's only been in the last few months when we've got back to touring as we knew it and are back on the bus again.”
Rob Barraco echoes Mattson's excitement and is looking forward to performing again in the Stone Church, which he praised for its “awesome ambiance.”
“What I remember is how good it sounded in the room,” he said.
“What I like people to understand is that even if we are not playing all of the same songs as DSO, the songs I write and the songs I pick enable us to play in the same way,” Mattson said.
“We get to improvise, and it's the same kind of songs,” he noted.
He brought up the Grateful Dead, which “took so many cover songs and made them their own.”
And “that is what we are shooting for here,” Mattson said. “It should be something you like. The approach is going to be very accessible to Deadheads, with plenty of jamming, melody and rhythm.”
Stone Church looks to future
“The live event industry has faced immense struggles over the past two plus years as venues were the first to close and the last to reopen - for many of us, multiple times,” Robin Johnson, owner of the Stone Church, told The Commons.
“It remains rough these days as some customers are still hesitant to return to indoor crowds while others were lost due to COVID-19 restrictions,” he continued.
But Johnson reported “signs of life.”
“The patrons who are returning are ecstatic to be back in our lovely room enjoying live music again,” he said, noting the many ways in which the venue has adapted, including a food cart, private events, new programming, and partnerships with other local organizations like Gallery Walk and the Retreat Farm.
“Another tricky aspect for the live music industry has been the recalibrated risk assessment of consumers. Big-name performers have no trouble drawing crowds, while newer and regional acts continue to suffer,” Johnson said.
“That's why we're so excited to welcome back Jeff Mattson with his group made up primarily of his Dark Star Orchestra bandmates,” he said. “They played here four years ago, and it was definitely one of the venue's highlight shows.”