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Published: 2009/11/25
by Michael Berkey

Dead Ahead for Rob Barraco and Dark Star Orchestra

MB: So you’ve been playing with Dark Star for a few years now, but you also transitioned into playing with them. How did that transition work out for you and can you compare it to Jeff’s transition.

RB: My transition into this band – I came from playing with Phil and Friends and also playing with Chris Robinson for a little before that. I had to realize – how do I put this and not make myself sound like an egotistical maniac? It wasn’t about me. It was like being part of the collective again. I had to really find my voice in that collective. I had to scale it back a little bit because I was really over-playing. I knew it too – I listened to a couple . . . I was like, “Oh my God, dude, you’ve got to play like half of what you’re playing.” And actually that made me grow as a player. It made me realize what I’ve always realized, that half of what you play is the space that you leave – just as poignant a statement as any notes that you’re going to play. For me, when I look at it now after these last couple years, it’s been a really big growing thing. As far as Jeff is concerned, he’s just really got to get used to the way these drummers approach playing. I think for him – he’s coming to the same realization when I played for them for the first time – it blew my mind, this is really like playing with the Dead in ’77. Even more so than that, I’ve played with Phil and I’ve played with Bobby, but their head is in a way different place now, so they play very differently and wanted me to play very differently. They weren’t looking for me to play like Keith or Brent, they just wanted me to be me.

MB: So would you say that when you’re playing a show from the late 70’s like the other night, you’re trying to play in the mold of Keith?

RB: No, what I’m doing is being respectful of the boundary that exists within those two eras. Keith’s playing and Brent’s playing were so different. So I’m trying to respect that. With that being said, I really only know how to play like myself.

MB: I think it’s very difficult for any musician to try and emulate someone else when you have so much to offer from your own standpoint.

RB: Yeah, Keith especially is a part of my foundation anyway. He was the first piano player that I listened to. I switched from being an organist to a pianist because of Keith. I listened to Keith play and I was just so enamored with his sound. The first time I heard those guys with him – I could hear where he was coming from, which was completely jazz-based. He was a trio jazz player before he was in the Dead. It kind of transitioned me into a world of the love of jazz and I never really looked back after that. Brent to me was an afterthought because by the time Brent joined the band, I was already way into heavy duty jazz – the modern kind of stuff most people don’t want to really listen to.

MB: But when you’re playing the 80’s shows, you’re asked to sing some of the Brent tunes.

RB: Absolutely. That’s another thing that I’m thrilled about. It’s improved me as a singer so much because I have to sing out of my comfort zone and sing high, high harmonies that I’ve never been asked to do before. And it’s actually improved my range. Singing the Brent tunes themselves has really helped thicken up my voice a little bit and has given me a different approach. I noticed that I was doing some recordings at home, and I was singing on a couple of things and I could hear the change in my voice from like a couple of years ago. It actually shocked me a little bit. “Is that you?” My other voice answers.

MB: You were talking before a little bit about playing with Phil and Bobby versus playing in Dark Star. Can you say a little bit more about where their musical ideas are at within the last few years?

RB: I don’t know exactly where those guys are at this moment, but when I started playing with Phil his repertoire was the Grateful Dead repertoire. That’s all we were doing when I first joined that band. It evolved where we started doing other covers and original stuff. His big message to everybody in that band was, “You are the first among equals, nobody here is a soloist, we all are going to solo.” It worked on some levels – sometimes it didn’t. But it was always an experiment to try to make it work. It was trying to do a lot of listening but also being a contributor at the same time – that’s the key. Phil never really said, “I want to play these songs like the way the Dead played them.” Nor did he say, “Don’t play it like that.” He just said, “Play,” and we played. And when that band became solidified with Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes, those guys had two distinct styles and they just played the way they played and the chemistry worked.

MB: That was my favorite Phil and Friends line up.

RB: Oh yeah, it was tremendous. What an honor to play with your peers, people that you admire and that have such distinct styles. And when I was in the Dead with Phil and Bobby, it was a little different. When I got in the band, I just assumed – and wrongly so – that I was going to approach this the same way I approached Phil and Friends. But I quickly learned that was not the game plan – there actually was no game plan. We had to find a different voice and I had to learn – like I’ve learned in Dark Star – to pare down what I was playing. Bob especially didn’t want it to be so frenetic. Phil just welcomed that. So those are the differences between those two bands. The Dark Star thing, I think, for me was more like playing with the Dead and those two drummers. Billy and Mickey have a distinct way of playing that makes you play a certain way.

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