Dark Star Orchestra: Life After Dead
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.”
“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.
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.”
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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The duty of arranging the setlist night after night is no simple task, and none of the others envy Eaton’s role. On a nightly basis he must satisfy the desires of the crowd as well as those of his bandmates. He and he alone holds the vital judgment of whether to execute an “elective” or a “recreation” set.
The relationship between Dark Star and living Grateful Dead members is congenial. As mentioned, John Kadlecik left DSO to join Furthur. Jeff Mattson is the guitarist in the Donna Jean Godchaux Band and has co-written a song with Barraco on Phil & Friends‘ There and Back Again. Barraco has played in The Other Ones, The Dead, RatDog and Phil & Friends. All remaining DSO members have either been involved with previous Grateful Dead affiliations or tribute groups, too. But it’s Barraco who had the grand opportunity to work side by side with a key Dead “member,” Robert Hunter. Meeting him while on a string of shows with Phil & Friends in 2001, Barraco humbly introduced himself to the lyricist and from that moment on a friendship bloomed. This segued to the production of a co-written studio album in 2007 titled When We All Come Home.
“We started talking about songwriting as a craft and I looked at him and said, ‘I got some stuff.’ He just stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘Send it to me, and let me hear what you’re doing.’ He gave me his address and I went back to my girlfriend at the time’s place in Portland and sat in the bedroom for days doing demos. I was so excited that Robert Hunter was going to listen to my music,” Barraco explains. “I sent him three songs, and three weeks later I got an email stating, ‘Your music is speaking to me.’ In that, he sent his phone number and said to give him a call in a week or so. So I called him up and he says, ‘Listen man, can you come down here to San Rafael? I got some really good stuff for you.’ I went down and visited him. I sat in his living room and he handed me these sheets of paper. In my head I’m listening to my music and reading his lyrics and I was just so blown away because he captured the spirit of it all – I basically did not have to do any editing with it, he did it perfectly. I looked at him, dumbfounded, and said, ‘Do you think you’re up for a little more?’ And he just said to lay it on him. After that, I just started sending him stuff and in a very short period of time it became an album’s worth of material.”
Dark Star Orchestra’s claim to fame with fans will always be their magical reincarnation of the Grateful Dead’s music. However, some original creative expansion is taking place removed from the Dead catalog.
Dark Star has constantly had to deal with misconceptions about what they do. Dismissing the tag of “cover band,” the group feels that their mission and performance expands way beyond the generic label. Yes, they carry out a catalog of music created by another group, but it is in the spirit of the improvisations where they shine most uniquely. They do NOT think they are the Grateful Dead, and as Eaton puts it, they know damn well who they are.
“Here’s a great analogy I have used before,” explains Eaton. “Say I’m a painter and I have a setlist and this wood frame. The wood frame on this white canvas is the setlist, the order of the songs and the arrangements of the songs. All the colors and textures and patterns that get splattered on this canvas over the course of the night are the improvisations that differ on a nightly basis. I think that’s all we can do, to be true to ourselves and to be true to the emotional content of the music. We play it with heart and soul, and that’s really what the people get. People get the feeling. When you can transfer something you’re feeling into sound that someone else could hear and feel that’s a great thing. Jerry was really great at it. If we can tap into even a little part of that, that’s really what it’s all about.”
“We honor that music like Bach, Beethoven and Chopin because we think that this music needs to live on through the ages,” Barraco continues. “It’s incredibly important, it’s uniquely American, and we want to honor it that way. We want to approach it the same way they approached it. We want to take ourselves on that journey. By the very nature of doing that, we take the entire audience on the same journey.”
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