By Steve Houk

Jeff Mattson (courtesy Peter Wochniak)
Jeff Mattson (courtesy Peter Wochniak)

For guitarist Jeff Mattson, the Grateful Dead has been his muse for about as long as he can remember. Some of his earliest musical memories of childhood include not only listening to his jazz musician father jamming, but also rocking out to the Dead, the Allman Brothers and other legendary improvisational rock music.

And that’s a good thing, because over the years, the Dead’s music has been very very good to him, with the bulk of his successful 36-year career having been spent playing the Dead’s music in bands like the Zen Tricksters since 1979, and for the last five years, as lead guitarist for arguably the best Dead-related band ever, Dark Star Orchestra.

But it’s not surprising that every now and then, he and fellow DSO member and longtime friend Rob Barraco feel the need to change it up a tad by playing some different music, seems only fair, right? To that end, they are out on the road this month for a brief swing as Mattson/Barraco and Friends, with a stop at Gypsy Sally’s in DC on Saturday June 13th.

“Just to do something outside of the Dark Star paradigm of doing all Grateful Dead all the time,” Mattson told me from his home on Long Island, “we thought it’d be fun to put something together between Dark Star tours where we can play our original music and some other cover stuff, and yes, add some Dead, some Jerry Garcia Band stuff, but treat it a little bit differently, and have some fun with it.”

As the Grateful Dead celebrate 50 years of music this year, and even as he embarks on another little-less-Dead jaunt with Baracco, Mattson looks back on his close relationships with the surviving Dead members with great fondness, and even a dash of reverence.

“The first person from the Dead I got to play with was Phil,” said Mattson. “In 1999, I did three shows with Phil Lesh and Friends at the Warfield in San Francisco. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to play with all the living members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another, couple times with Bobby (Weir), buncha times with Phil, and Billy (Kreutzmann) and Mickey (Hart) and Donna (Jean Godchaux) and Tom (Constanten). That’s really been the highlight for me of my whole career, because these people, I have so much respect for their musical creation, what they’ve done in the past, what they’re doing now, so to get to play with them is kind of an intimate thing. The things that really shine when I look back, that stick out, are when I’ve been able to play with those folks.”

Mattson started playing with the Dead’s Godchaux in the mid 2000’s, but a few years later a personnel change in DSO opened up an opportunity that he just couldn’t pass up, and that proved to be what would propel him forward into the great gig he has now.

“(Guitarist and DSO founding member) John Kadlecik was approached by (Lesh & Weir’s) Furthur,” Mattson said. “At first he was gonna try to both things and they called me to fill in for some shows while he was off rehearsing with Furthur, and then it became apparent that he wasn’t going to able to do both because Furthur was gonna play alot of shows. So they asked me to consider joining DSO. At that point, my full time gig was playing with Donna Jean, so I was kinda torn because it was a good opportunity, but I was already doing this other thing. But obviously as it turned out, I did take the job with Dark Star in 2010 and have been with them ever since, and I still play with Donna Jean too.”

Jeff Mattson (L) and Rob Barraco
Jeff Mattson (L) and Rob Barraco

Mattson relishes his place in DSO, but again, it’s nice to be able to get out and work some other musical muscles in between playing all Dead. Joining Mattson and Baracco this go-round are Baracco’s son Tom on drums and Rob Friedman on bass. Mattson knows full well that audiences are going to still expect some Dead tunage from this brood, and they won’t be dissapointed as long as they also let these masters spread their wings a little.

“When people come see us, they’re going to want to hear some of that (Dead) stuff, so it’s definitely in there, too. But I think mainly the idea was for us to get to flex some other chops than doing the straight 100% Grateful Dead thing, because we love all kinds of other music.”

Mattson/Barraco & Friends perform June 13th at Gypsy Sally’s, 3401 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20007. For tickets, click here.


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