ON THE ROAD WITH DARK STAR ORCHESTRA

Many of you might be down to share the women and the wine but how about sharing a bed on a tour bus for 8 weeks or more? Or working a job where the hours are when-you-wake-until-the-second-you-fall-asleep every single day? Do you love the music enough to leave behind your friends, pets, and lovers for months at a time? If you're a member of the small band of merry men who travel with this Orchestra then the answer to all of the above is a resounding yes. These are the dedicated cats that make sure Dark Star shines every night when the curtain rises.


Robbie Williams at The Warfield
The day I've come to spend with this road crew is a propitious one. August 1st is the anniversary of Jerry Garcia's birthday, and the band is playing an old Garcia favorite, the Warfield in San Francisco. I didn't check my astrological charts but it did seem the stars were in a nifty alignment. I arrive at the backdoor of the theater about an hour after load-in has begun. Aging hippies smoke Camels by the Jerry mural as lanky kids lift that barge and tote that bale. Tie-dye is everywhere in shirts and banners and blue jeans battered into colorful submission. This is where the freaks are gathering and I quicken my steps to join them.

Robbie Williams is DSO's new road manager, new as in 2 1/2 weeks on the job. As a 15-year fan of the Grateful Dead he considers this a privilege despite the initiation process the group is putting him through. "It's constant hazing but as I like to tell them, 'every day is a holiday' and 'no worries,'" says Williams.

These two expressions form the crew's philosophical maypole. Contrary to stereotypes, this is the most professional, driven, articulate gang of folks I've encountered in my backstage passes. They channel a work ethic that would put a Protestant to shame.

Williams tells us that an average day "Starts when I hop off the bus to meet the local production guy and find out where we're parking, and it's done when the truck doors close and I'm the last one on the bus and we roll out."

They arrive six to seven hours before doors for each gig. Given the four to five standard set-ups they use, it can take 90 minutes for a small show and up to three hours for big ones, just to get everything in its right place. Load-out can be a pithy 45 minutes or up to several hours. Since the band recreates Dead performances from every era there are factors like one or two drummers, back-line electronics, mics for all the singers if it is a "Donna show," and little hitches like at least three different Dead set-ups just between 1971-1975. Chubby, their monitor tech, explains, "We have to be flexible enough to react to each of those on any given day."


Bryan Adcock
Bryan Adcock, chief lighting tech, continues, "I thought I knew Grateful Dead music well before I started with this band. They take it to a whole new level; so many different songs can be different from 1973 to 1983, vastly different. Not only different songs on different equipment but when they do these elective shows (an original setlist rather than a specific show recreation) you can get a 'Cassidy' that has the '70s version with the Donna vocals singing but you can still have the '80s jam that was cut short in the '70s. It keeps you on your toes."

Williams adds with a sunny grin, "Being able to hear Grateful Dead music every day when you go to work is pure magic. It's awesome."

For those unfamiliar with DSO, they are the modern equivalent of traveling bards; keeping a song cycle alive for each hamlet and shire they tramp through. Some nights they craft a unique set of their own concoction but more often than not you'll find them recreating the 10.17.83 Olympic Center performance or some other good night where the Dead gave it up like the great American Music institution we know them to be. The source of each night's tunes is kept from anyone outside the inner circle until post-encore. Part of the fun of being in the audience at a Dark Star show is the wild, vocal conjecture that starts before they've even hit note one.

I take some tiny pride in having deduced the likely show for this birthday party before I arrive. It won't be until past midnight that my suspicions will be confirmed but the Roosevelt Stadium from 8.01.73 is one of only a handful of dates the Dead ever performed on Garcia's birthday during his lifetime. And they do their mentors proud by including a very typical, Gratefully ragged opening that made me rifle through the flip book in my head of all the hard starts I heard back in the eighties that blossomed into glory soon afterwards.


Cameron Blietz with Crew
"We're being allowed to do this by some grace and amazing generosity on the part of the men who made this music," states soundman Cameron Blietz. Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, and Vince Welnick have all played with Dark Star. Lyricist John Barlow even danced his tail off in the audience at Martyr's in Chicago. Blietz continues, "I often wonder if I would be a detractor of this thing if I wasn't part of it because it was music that changed my life extremely back in 1981. We're not the Grateful Dead. We will be the first ones to tell you that. This stew, this spaghetti sauce we've put together, tomatoes and the spices and everything that gets whipped into the pot and slopped onto the stage every night gets so close that it just slams me in the heart."

At the sound check my head buzzes as they glide through "Eyes of the World" with the balcony doors open to Market Street, a salty breeze blowing and everyone in the room swaying gently. Williams tells me, "It's spooky how close it is sometimes. The good thing is they're keeping the vibe alive and introducing this music to a whole generation who would never have been able to experience it at this high a level, and I believe they are performing at this high of a level."

Before showtime everybody has their specific bits to tend to.


Brad Eaton of DSO | Photo By Black Jack
Adcock uses existing lighting at whatever venue they're playing. He has a preference for asymmetric patterns. "I'm in a philosophy of people come to see the band and there's no light show without a band," he says. "The two together can be symmetry in itself. I feel it's an important part of a show." When doing earlier time periods he might avoid patterns all together to help the recreation's verisimilitude. More than anything he tries to make a better time WITH the music. "I don't worry about getting everything just right on my "Playing In The Band" sequence like you would with a lot of acts where you have the same setlist and the same thing happening every night. I leave a lot of it for random occurrences."

Recordings of specific Dead shows are used as a blueprint for the sound design. "The musicians use them a lot just so they can get tempos and confirm song lengths and all the minutiae that goes into their end of it," says Cameron Blietz. "When I'm listening to those recordings I'm listening for where the snare is placed in the mix."


Cameron Blietz
The drummers were the ones to prompt Blietz into further study. "When it came down to the sound of things they would listen to (our) tapes and say things like 'Dude, this kick drum sounds more like a '90s thing. It needs to be thin, not so much body. And this high-hat is too hot.' They worked me over on this stuff so I started to take my own initiative and listen to tapes. I like to listen to room tapes, obviously, because board tapes can lie to you."

The key is to not try and reproduce anything note for note. He explains, "We try to suppress our individual personalities but I would say what you hear at a given performance can be driven a lot by the passions of the individuals playing at the moment. There is a certain amount of the personality of the player that comes through and tells you this is not Jerry Garcia, which tells you this is not Bob Weir. Kinda like using the right tastes you can simulate a sarsaparilla or a peppermint. You put the right things together and you fool yourself into tasting it. I think that's what we do."

The audience is a key factor, too. "We do a good job evoking some of the sound but a lot of the concert event comes from the audience and what the band spits back to the audience based on what they're picking up," states Blietz. "Not to go crazy metaphysical on it because it drives me crazy when people do that. I don't mean to sound like I'm on a 'drink my incense and burn my tea' trip."


Robbie Williams
Last year the group was on the road for about 250 days and played close to 170 shows. This year they're trying a 2-month-on, 1-month-off plan that will hit around 130 gigs. Williams, who carries his dog Teila's tags with him as a reminder of home, says, "My life right now consists of a day pack, a duffle bag and a laptop and that's about it." He also has a roll of masking tape and packets of "Emergen-C Super Orange Instant Get Up and Go" energy boosters sitting on his desk in the basement ready room, stray elements to help hold it together with chemistry and MacGyver-like invention as fifteen problems arise each minute.

Adcock offers, "It's a living like anything else. One of the advantages is I can have three weeks off at a time or take a float trip Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday if I want to. It does wear on you. It's something you get more used to but you never get totally used to. Being in a different place all the time can wear on one's soul. I love it, the music and the crowds having a good time makes it all worth it."

In his traditional succinct fashion, Chubby describes it as "Kind of a nomadic existence, at best."


Cameron & Chubby
"We're not whipping the horse quite so hard lately," chimes in Blietz. "We found that there is indeed a brick wall out there. We're young and we're dumb and we're full of... well, everyone has their limits." He continues, "Most people don't have to live out of a suitcase or live away from their pets and everyone they know. It's tougher than you think. You live at the office. When you get into an argument with that guy at the office, and everybody does, you get to go home. Here, that guy comes to sit next to you on the couch on the bus or his bunk is right beneath you and you get to listen to him snore which further infuriates you."

He quickly adds, "We love each other very much. If there are tiffs the kiss-and-make-up comes really fast. We've learned amazing amounts of people skills cramming twelve of us onto a bus."


Crew with FDNY
One of the biggest misconceptions about Dark Star Orchestra is that they're getting rich doing what they do. Nothing could be further from the truth. The business of moving around sixteen people and 10,000 pounds of musical equipment is pricey stuff. Right now they manage to pay their bills and keep places back at home with modest rents. The lion's share of the money is not getting on the bus with them at the end of the night.

"You spend a whole long day setting up and it might be a crazy load-in, everything could go wrong but as soon as the music starts and the whole house is dancing everything's great," states Robbie Williams.

DSO is a dream that began back in 1992 and really took off in 1997. It is part of a tradition begun by the Grateful Dead but carried far beyond their original vision in the decades since. What it's about is a sixteen-year-old nouveau Head who bellows out "Happy Birthday, Jerry!" as the lights fall at the Warfield this August 1st. His youthful exuberance elicits hoots and cheers and smiles more than a body has a right to. Dark Star makes these moments possible through their skill and tireless work, with profound respect for tradition, and a determination to beautify many more Saturday nights.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | World Wide
Go See Live Music!

http://darkstarorchestra.com/

[Published on: 10/9/03]

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