The Art of the Sit-In | Rob Barraco Tells All
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Stanton Moore, Eric Krasno, Tom Hamilton, John Kadlecik and others.
Rob Barraco wears his love of music, Grateful Dead and otherwise, right there on his face; we wouldn’t be the first ones to call that classic Barraco in-the-moment expression “beatific.”
For many years one of the jam scene’s most expressive and exciting keyboardists and singers, Barraco continues his near-decade-long journey with Dark Star Orchestra. In an interview during the band’s recent swing through the New York area, Barraco caught us up on DSO, as well as a new band he’s working on, and other things on his mind.
JAMBASE: Dark Star Orchestra has now played more shows than the Grateful Dead did during its 30-year run – quite a milestone. I have to ask: What peaks does DSO still want to scale? What do you want to do with this band you haven’t yet?
ROB BARRACO: Well, there are still shows we haven’t played, and I think we want to get to all the shows, somehow, if we can. But the one thing about this music, because it’s so highly improvisational and open-ended, we can go pretty much anywhere we want with it. I mean, a setlist we’ve played a dozen times, it’s always going to go some place different.
What makes us us is that everyone puts personality into what’s being played, and we do different things, and it happens in a way that maybe the Dead itself wouldn’t have thought to go. During our elective setlists we tend to try things the Dead never did, such as doing Help > Slip > Feel Like a Stranger or Help > Slip > Reuben and Cherise. They never did that obviously but we can do it and it sounds great.
The other thing is that a couple of years ago, we started writing stuf – we figured we’d try the originals thing. We quit doing that for a while, but now that Skip is solidly part of the band, we’re going to take that up again. It’s not going to be music that we force-feed to our audience – they come to us for a reason. But it is something we may indulge in as a side project.
JAMBASE: I was going to ask about that. Jeff mentioned that to me years ago and I know there was one new original with Robert Hunter lyrics but the idea seemed to fade away. I remember he described it as, I don’t know, maybe you guys would “open” for yourselves with original songs.
RB: That’s a possibility sure. Almost every night we have extra songs at the end of the show. We play four-hour shows, and some of the Dead shows we do – especially some of the late 80s or early 90s shows – just aren’t that long. So we’ll slip in an extra tune or two and I think that might be a good place for some of that material eventually.
JAMBASE: Would these be songs from your trove of originals, or Jeff’s or Skip’s or whatever, or are we talking net-new songs?
RB: I think we’d really concentrate on new, with all of us contributing new material. Jeff and I have so many songs from the past, but I would tend to want to stay closer to new material. I like the collaboration possibilities.
JAMBASE: Talk about Skip Vangelas and what he’s brought to the band now that he’s established himself. I remember seeing you guys at the Capitol Theater last year – I think that was his first show?
RB: That was his first show.
JAMBASE: Right, and it seemed like he slipped right in and hasn’t missed a beat since he got the gig.
RB: Skip understands this music more than any other bass player I’ve met, besides Phil [Lesh]. He’s the missing link. Once he got the confidence – once he was a couple of months into the role and it became a matter of routine for him – he’s been all in. I think in the past we were sometimes pushing to make up for inadequacies in the rhythm section, and that’s not to take anything away from Kevin [Rosen], but he just didn’t get it in the same way that Skip gets it.
The jams are going places we never thought they’d go. He’s driving it. I played with Phil, who was one of the most aggressive bassists I’ve ever played with and I get that same feeling from Skip.
JAMBASE: Right, given the time you spent with Phil and also in the Dead, you got to know that style. Would you describe that as a feel on Skip’s part, or is it more technical than that?
RB: You know when I became a Deadhead as a teenager, Phil’s bass was the element I was most attracted to – there’s really no rock ‘n’ roll or jazz bass player that approaches it the same way he does. He looks at it from a compositional view. Not to make it sound too dry, but he’s like a chess player – he’s thinking many moves ahead – and while he’ll surprise you in the moment, if you listen back over a recording of something he’s done, you’ll hear that he kind of set it up to go a certain place and come back again. That’s something I’ve always admired in Phil’s playing and that I think is so important in this music. Skip really embodies that spirit.
JAMBASE: As an off-to-the-side question, how come you didn’t pursue bass? I know you play bass but given your interest, could it have ever been your dominant instrument?
RB: I was already an organist by the time I heard Phil play. I went to college as a classical organ major and later got enamored of jazz piano and switched to piano. The thought of being a bass player never really occurred to me, although I started on guitar when I was really little. What’s funny is that someone left a bass in my house for like a nine-month period, and I listened to the Skull & Roses album and played along with it.
But it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I ever even played bass in a band. Jeff Mattson’s girlfriend had an acoustic project a long time back and she asked me to play bass in it – it was a side project for the Zen Tricksters. I didn’t play bass in another band until RatDog, where I was the first electric bass player for like a two-week stint.
JAMBASE: I remember, sure.
RB: Yeah. But then after it wasn’t until 2010 that Jeff asked me to help him put together a little project. I wasn’t going to play bass in it, but we didn’t have anyone in mind or available for bass, so I was like, hey, I’ll just do it. We worked with Jason Crosby which was always cool. But that’s my story on bass. As soon as Skip joined Dark Star Orchestra, we said, this is the guy. He gets it. Me, I just want to be the piano player, man.
JAMBASE: Well, you obviously sing, too.
RB: That was something I started more out of necessity – I needed to be a singer in all the bands I’ve ever been in since I was like seven years old. I sang Dead tunes as a teenager, I sang Beatles tunes, I sang country-bluegrass stuff in college, I even once sang in a prog-rock band doing Yes tunes. But Dark Star made me a much better singer because I had to step out of my comfort zone to fulfill the roles. The Pigpen thing comes pretty easily but not the Brent thing – the high harmonies really increased my range.
JAMBASE: But you harmonized all the time in Phil & Friends.
RB: With Phil, I was either signing lead or usually singing the middle harmonies – Warren took the high harmonies. With exceptions here and there, there wasn’t really an opportunity with Phil to learn those parts. It’s a hard thing, man! The Pigpen thing is in my range and I love that, but if I do the Brent thing two nights in a row I have to take a break or my voice is shot.
JAMBASE: Circling back around on Skip, it sounds like once it became clear Kevin would be moving on, there was no doubt Skip was the guy.
RB: Absolutely. You know Skip was in the corporate world for 25 years, he’s an MBA and he was doing corporate real estate. He’s a great people person. For this, we had to see if he could work it out, and we gave him a few months to decide. He finally gave us the thumbs up and gave notice in his job and he’s about as happy as he’s ever been right now. I’m convinced he was really languishing in the business world. We’re so happy to have him.
JAMBASE: Always lots of interesting associations with you guys. I couldn’t help but notice Sam Cutler has been on the road with DSO a bit.
RB: Sam is such a trip, man. He showed up a year ago at the Jubilee, just showed up. We all became fast friends and he loves what we’re doing, especially right now. He also believes Skip has been a game-changer for us. But yeah he’s been out on tour with us and coming up and announcing us and he’s hawking his book, one hand washes the other, you know? He has great stories about the Stones and the Dead and he’s a real sweet, happy guy – lots of positive energy.
JAMBASE: And he just randomly showed up one day at the Jubilee?
RB: Yeah, he did. Somewhere along the line after that, he’d sent us an e-mail asking if we would mind if he came out and emceed some shows for us and hawked his book, and we said, sure. He started with us out on the West Coast and he’s been at a few of our East Coast shows.
JAMBASE: Speaking of the Jubilee, I understand there was a special Mattson/Barraco set. Is it safe to say the Mattson/Barraco & Friends shows will continue?
RB: Oh, we have a brand new project – we unleashed it at the Jubilee. The core members of the band are Jeff and I, Skip on bass, and we have the honor of playing with an amazing violinist, Nicky Sanders of the Steep Canyon Rangers. He is totally psyched about doing the originals thing with us. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, but his girlfriend lives in Manhattan, so I think this fall we’re going to start getting together and when we have some time off from DSO we’re going to play.
JAMBASE: Whenever that is!
RB: Ha, right. Well, we are starting to cut down on shows. Not a big cut back of shows but the members of the band want to spend more time with their children and be free to pursue other projects when there’s time.
JAMBASE: So this band will be focused on original music?
RB: Original music, yes. And a few covers here and there. The drummer has yet to be decided, we have a couple of possible ideas.
JAMBASE: Speaking of spending time with children, we don’t often get to talk about your son, Tom, who I know played a few Mattson/Barraco gigs and is accomplished with other bands. Did you push music on him early?
RB: Man, he was a force of nature by the time he could even walk – my ex-wife and I always knew he was going to play. He had rhythm and he’d start banging wooden spoons and pots and pans together and arrange them the way little kids do, but later on I realized it was more than that.
I remember – I think he was about five years old – I was visiting a friend in upstate New York and [Tom] found one of these African drums at his place and he took it and began walking around the house with it under his arm and making sounds with it. One of the guys at this party, he was a great musician and he saw this and he came up to me and he was like, wow, how long has your son been studying? And I was like, he hasn’t been!
He just innately had it. When he was six I bought him his first drum kit and he went nuts for it. When he was 11, which was when I was playing with Phil & Friends, I worked with John Molo, who had an endorsement with DW Drums. I got him a pro kit that he plays on to this day – a kit he’ll probably have his whole life. He’s never formally studied with anybody, but he never ceases to amaze me with what he can come up with – he’s completely ambidextrous. He’s doing really well; he got engaged last night.
RB: Yeah, it’s great. I would love to see him be the drummer of the Mattson/Barraco thing and we’re seeing if it can work.
JAMBASE: Switching gears a bit Rob, you’ve been in Dark Star Orchestra for nearly a decade and have been through some major lineup changes since. I want to ask, as some time has gone by now, is there still weirdness between you guys and John Kadlecik?
RB: John K left the band in Buffalo, NY in December of, I think, 2009? I can’t even remember anymore. I haven’t heard one word from the man or seen him, so I don’t know what I can say. We haven’t communicated at all and no one in the band much talks to him. John moved on. I was happy he got that experience – it’s a great musical experience to play with those guys and such a lesson in professionalism and how to deal with things at that level.
JAMBASE: Understood. Well I do want to ask you about a couple of recent sit-in experiences. You spelled Gregg Allman at two of the Allman Brothers’ Beacon shows a few months ago – how did that come together?
RB: I showed up on Tuesday of that week and it was a great performance. Gregg didn’t look very well but he sang well. Thursday afternoon that week I get a text from Warren asking me if I knew “Jessica,” and I said yes. He said, do you want to play it tomorrow night? He knew I was coming, I’d been planning to sit in on that Friday. I said yes, and he said, show up at the Beacon early and we’ll go up to the practice room to work out a few things.
So I get there early and he’s he first person I see and he says, hey man, change of plans – you’re doing the whole show [laughs]. I said, whoa, OK, let me see a setlist, and I’m like, I don’t know half these songs!
But I went up to the rehearsal room and I learned the songs and read charts on the gig. Kofi played keyboards as well – we did a tandem thing and I played mostly piano and he played mostly organ. But the band sounded great and all these people sat in. I think it might have been a disappointment for the audience initially, but one song in, at least from where I was sitting, they were digging it.
After the show, Bert [Holman] pulled me aside and was like, what are you doing tomorrow? Can you be on call? I got the call in the morning. I always loved sitting in with those guys – the Allmans were my first rock heroes, the first band I loved that I ever saw play live, even before the Dead. I’m an Allman Brothers freak.
JAMBASE: I’ll come full circle on the Dead, Phil, Warren and those topics. Do you expect to play more reunion shows with the Q this year?
RB: I’d love to. I haven’t heard a word, though – it’s so very tough with everybody’s schedules. When Phil reunited us [two years ago], the original idea he talked about was to get the Q back together four times a year. It’s almost impossible to even get it done once. Believe me, everyone wants to. Molo actually called me earlier today and left a message saying man, I wish we could play together. You never know. But it’s a huge desire of mine. That’s still probably my favorite band I’ve ever played with.
Here are a half-dozen recent Rob Barraco appearances well worth your listening hours, though be advised most every Dark Star Orchestra performance these days has choice Barraco moments to celebrate.
Phil Lesh Quintet, Civic Center, Asheville, NC, 12/13/2013
What a tease, these guys! As Barraco told us, the plan was for this mightiest of all Phil & Friends lineups to return several times a year, but its only appearance in 2013 was for all of two hours at the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. It was enough to satisfy – and given the inconsistent quality of Phil & Friends shows these days, to make us yearn for yet more Q.
Zen Tricksters, Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY, 1/22/2014
The last few Januarys have brought a Zen Tricksters reunion to Brooklyn, and this one had the band in fine fettle – it always seems to pick up where it left off and Barraco shines as usual. Listen to this one and learn why you should get yourself to Brooklyn Bowl on June 17, when an even rarer midsummer Tricksters performance will take place.
Dark Star Orchestra, The Pageant, St. Louis, MO, 2/6/2014
DSO’s been playing at such a regularly high level since Skip Vangelas transitioned into the bass role that it’s hard to isolate even a few 2014 performances, but we’ll highlight this St. Louis gem – covering 10/15/76 in Los Angeles – for its Barraco playing, even though he’s not singing here.
Allman Brothers Band, Beacon Theater, NYC, 3/21/2014 and 3/22/2014
Barraco more-than-ably spells an ailing Gregg Allman in tandem with Kofi Burbridge. Your call on which was the stronger night.
Everyone Orchestra, Dark Star Jubilee, Thornville, OH, 5/24/2014
There are any number of sets we could highlight from this year’s Jubilee, but the Everyone Orchestra set is unique: a selection of DSO players, including Barraco, is present and it’s ever so much fun to hear them blend their DSO “thing” with Matt Butler’s EO framework.
Dark Star Orchestra, Dark Star Jubilee, Thornville, OH, 5/25/2014
OK, so we have to say something about the extra-strength DSO performances from Jubilee. All three are worth a listen, but the third night brought that je ne sais quoi every dedicated concertgoer chases. Listen to Barraco belt out “Mr. Charlie” in the first set and you can just feel how much fun he’s having.