Dark Star Orchestra: Life After Dead

By: Jarrod Dicker

Dark Star Orchestra by Peter Wochniak
"We are NOT the Grateful Dead," professes Dark Star Orchestra's rhythm guitarist and vocalist Rob Eaton. "I think the main misconception is that we strictly copy the Grateful Dead's music or somehow mimic their persona and none of that is true. We love this music, we live and breathe this music and when we step onstage there is no thought process of us trying to be or do anything except serve this music."

Established in 1997, Dark Star Orchestra embarked on a single mission: reincarnate exact setlists from the Grateful Dead's tour catalog which, throughout its 30 year existence, accumulated nearly 2,500 live performances. Dark Star Orchestra conveys these live performances by employing two distinct methods - a "recreation set," where DSO mirrors a historical setlist of a genuine Grateful Dead performance, and the "elective set," where the group generates their own setlist of Grateful Dead songs.

The tradition of Dark Star Orchestra's pedigree is for members to adapt terminology and choral arrangements originally exhibited by the actual Grateful Dead. By doing this, they are able to familiarize the audience and transcend them spiritually to a nostalgic time when the Grateful Dead were an active, animate part of the rock & roll scene. Thus, rather than label themselves a "cover band," DSO prefers a more accurate, incorporeal term.

"I say we are a spirit band," Eaton explains. "We play the music in the spirit that it was originally conceived. The heart, soul, emotion and spirit of the music are the only things we can do to carry it through. It is impossible to copy a setlist exactly. You cannot recreate a show. You can play a setlist, but you absolutely can't recreate it. That's basically something that happens in the moment."

Dark Star Orchestra by Peter Wochniak
The group's commitment to heavy improvisation goes all the way back to the formation of their band name. The Dark Star Orchestra moniker was chosen deliberately by founding members who believed that the Hunter/Garcia song "Dark Star" was the single most fitting piece to categorize the fundamental nature of the Grateful Dead. Meagerly including a sizeable verse/chorus arrangement, the song highlights the non-structure inventiveness of the Grateful Dead more than any other song in their extensive catalog. "Orchestra" was affixed onto the group's name to communicate the obligation these artists felt to keep this music alive by communicating to the world the classic compositions of the Grateful Dead.

"The name 'orchestra' in our band is so apt because when you think about what an orchestra does, they're recreating classical work," DSO keyboardist Rob Barraco observes. "The difference is classical work is really orchestra, but we're kind of approaching it in a similar way. We're trying to be true to a particular era and sound, but by the very nature of what Grateful Dead music really is, you have to live in the moment of the music."

In October 2008, the group performed its 1,600th career show. They are one of the only tribute groups that have achieved such heightened notoriety, having played major festival's like Bonnaroo, Gathering of the Vibes and Summerfest, as well as nurturing a devoted nationwide following with a relentless touring schedule.

This past December, Dark Star Orchestra co-founder and lead guitarist John Kadlecik announced that he would be leaving the group after 12 years to join Bob Weir and Phil Lesh with their current project, Furthur. While this news initially stalled the DSO freight train in its tracks, the band kept playing on, electing Zen Tricksters founder and Donna Jean Godchaux Band guitarist Jeff Mattson to fill the "Jerry" role... for now.

Stu Allen by Susan J. Weiand
"There is another guitar player that we're going to be taking out and touring with in April," reveals Barraco. "It's only to be fair, because you don't want to simply choose one guy and then realize later that you made a mistake. So, we're going to be going out with Stu Allen [JGB] and doing a whole West Coast tour with him. He's a tremendous player, has a beautiful voice and a really nice sound. Then after we play with Stu, we will have a clear idea of where we're going to go in terms of Kadlecik's official replacement. We'll see after we play with Stu in April what the final decision will be."

The current touring DSO lineup includes Jeff Mattson, Rob Eaton, Kevin Rosen (bass, vocals), Lisa Mackey (vocals), Rob Koritz (drums), Dino English (drums) and Rob Barraco. As mentioned, Kadlecik was a founding member of the group along with the late Scott Larned, and his presence and veteran role in DSO most certainly will be difficult to replace. However, with the addition of Mattson, the band believes that he will not only be able to aptly fill the departed's shoes, but also inject a new element into the group that they have never experimented with while Kadlecik was involved.

"John Kadlecik became a Deadhead a lot later than Jeff because of the fact that he's younger," Barraco states. "I think John's real forte is playing more of the later '70s and '80s Grateful Dead. The one thing that Jeff has above everybody else is that he really understands the earlier bend on the Dead. The late '60s, early '70s. He does it so well and that's something that we really haven't concentrated on in this band until now. Jeff brings just a little more grease, that psychedelic greasy element that was missing in John's playing. Not to demean John's playing, because he's brilliant. That's just what Jeff brings that is different."

John Kadlecik with Furthur by Susan J. Weiand
"[Mattson] comes at it from a place of its inception almost," Eaton interjects. "He understands where it started and how it started and what it felt like when it started. He brings to the table a really deep understanding of what Jerry meant to this music in a pretty profound way that I didn't realize until I started playing with him."

Mattson's comprehension and knack to play early renditions of Dead music has transcended the group to places they've never been before. A few weeks back, drummer Dino English and his wife welcomed a child to the world, which understandably prevented him from attending the opening week of tour. Dark Star couldn't play a show that called for two drummers if only one, Koritz, was going to be present. So what did they do?

"We decided to do a whole string of Europe '72 shows and recreate those concerts [these shows feature just drummer Bill Kreutzmann]," says Barraco. "Dark Star had never done that before, all that old Pigpen stuff. Jeff was just ripping it up. It's been so psychedelic."

The Europe '72 shows were chosen by Eaton, who holds the chief responsibility of deciding the setlist for every DSO performance. He is a three-time Grammy Award winning producer as well as a former Grateful Dead taper who recorded throughout the late '70s and early '80s. He produced all of Pat Metheny's records for the past 20-25 years and has recently worked with Peter Wolf and Richard Bona. Joining DSO in 2001, Eaton had always selected setlist material with one "Jerry" in mind, John Kadlecik. Have any complications come about creating setlists to compliment their new guitarist?

"Nope, not at all," Eaton confidently proclaims. "He did five shows with us in November, mid-tour, and I threw the gauntlet at him to see what he was made of. I gave him EVERYTHING! I gave him a show from '89, and it had some stuff we've never even played before. There were some songs that John Kadlecik just didn't want to learn sometimes. Certain shows would have a song called 'California Earthquake' that we never got around to doing. So, I threw that at Jeff - I said, 'Learn this song. We're going to do this exact show' - right out of the box without any rehearsals or anything like that. I tested him right away and he passed all the tests with flying colors. At the end of the day, the exocentric components of a specific tone are all about the heart and soul of the music and what the emotional content of it is. The emotional content with Jeff is very strong. That I think, at the end of the day, is what Grateful Dead music is all about. It's all about the emotion."

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