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Published: 2014/05/19
by Trina Calderón

Dark Star Orchestra Hits Their Mark

Photo by Artie Raslich

The Grateful Dead played a legendary 2,318 live shows for their loyal fans over a thirty-year span from 1965 – 1995. On Saturday, April 12th, 2014, Dark Star Orchestra hit the same concert milestone, playing 2,318 live shows for their fans, but over a seventeen-year span from 1997 – 2014. Not a typical cover band by any stretch, DSO strives to bring the live experience and experiment of the Grateful Dead to its contemporary audience. A DSO show is as close as can come to a carbon copy of an entire show the Grateful Dead played, down to every detail, whether its one drummer in 1974 to Brent on keys in 1988 to Donna ripping vocals on “Playing in the Band” in 1972. DSO is Rob Eaton (rhythm guitar/vocals, Rob Barraco (keyboards/vocals), Lisa Mackey (vocals), Skip Vangelas (bass/vocals), Rob Koritz (drums/percussion), Dino English (drums/percussion), and Jeff Mattson (lead guitar/vocals).

DSO’s 2,318 show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco was sold out, and cameras lurked through the crowd while filmmakers shot interviews and dancing footage for the upcoming documentary, Dead For Life. While DSO plays entire GD shows, this night consisted of an original setlist of Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band favorites. Highlights were a smokin’ “Shakedown Street,” “Feel Like A Stranger,” “Terrapin Station” and “Midnight Moonlight.” I asked Dino, Rob, and Jeff some questions about this honorable notch in the belt for DSO.

Did you ever in your wildest dreams think DSO would hit this milestone of playing as many shows as the Grateful Dead?

Dino: We got up to 500 shows and we were kind of like, ‘wow, that went by fast.’ When we hit 1000, the joke was, ‘we’ve done it 1000 times.’ Around show 1500, I figured it’s official: we are road warriors. I can’t even remember where we were for 2000, but at that point I figured we had a shot at 2318. It’s really a band accomplishment rather than an accomplishment of any one band member because the band has changed over the years. We have everyone who’s ever played with the band to recognize as well. But at least half the current band has played well over 2000 shows, and crew too. Bryan Adcock, our lighting director, has performed the light show for well over 2000 DSO shows.

Rob: I never really thought much about it. I joined DSO well into its evolution. They’d already been a band for 9 or so years before I came along after the original keyboard player and the founder of the band passed away (Scott Larned). I just went a long with it, I was just helping them out in a way, and at that time I was still playing with Phil [Lesh]. I never thought I would join the band and as a matter of fact, I was adamantly opposed to playing with the band, but little by little I got what they were trying to do and I really thought it was genius and I saw the potential for it, if we kept at it.

One day, I emerged as a member of the band and the next thing I knew I was told, oh yeah, we were approaching 2000 shows and I was like, ‘crap, 2000 shows?’ I was like, wow, I can’t believe this band has played this many shows. It’s a testimony to these guys dedication to wanting to play, and remember its also making a living, so you have to rectify how if you play 135 shows a year, you make a good living, so that’s one aspect of it, though, on the other side of it though, is how much can I person put up with? Well, they have to have a lot of love and passion in order to continue to do this and each and every person in this band and organization has an amazing amount of passion for it. We just love to create this music and the beauty of DSO is that our motto is continuing the Grateful Dead live experience and what we’re doing is we’re taking the spirit of that music and we’re letting it take us wherever it would like to take us and because we do that, that’s the true spirit of this music, it’s the journey, it’s all about the journey. I’m really proud of the fact that were able to take people on a journey but first and foremost, we’re taking ourselves on a journey.

Jeff: Since I have only been with DSO for five years, and the band was well on its way to having performed a huge amount of shows, it certainly seemed quite possible to me that they would hit this milestone. I have been playing Grateful Dead music since the 1970s in bands such as The Zen Tricksters and the Donna Jean Godchaux Band, and although I have not kept count of the number of shows I have played in addition to five years of DSO touring, I am sure I personally have surpassed that Dead milestone. However, having said that, it’s just a number and nothing can compare to the incredible music the Dead made in that number of shows!

DSO has been playing together for 17 years, which is a long time, and the band has been through many changes. What do you think is the biggest factor in the band’s continued success? How has the band evolved with the changes?

Dino: No doubt about it. It’s a testament to the power of the music. The love for this music is what binds us together. We are all here to serve the music and we know it’s really not about us as individuals. We are just a means for the music to do its thing. We are simply doing what the music tells us to do. The music is in charge. We are not.

Rob: Each evolution has heightened what we do. Losing John [Kadlecik] was a huge blow, but getting Jeff was a huge coup, because Jeff has other deeper levels to him that he brings to this music. When John was in the band I mean the band was really good but our forte was doing the later 70s-80s stuff. When Jeff joining the band not only could we do that stuff but we could delve way back to that raw genesis of the music. Jeff knows how to go to these psychedelic places that are so necessary in order to recreate that and I love it because I always wanted to play in a band that could play that kind of music and I’ve hardly ever found anybody that understands. Each evolution has enhanced the band and our newest evolution is that we have a new bass player and he is a force of nature, and he is the first bass player besides Phil that gets it the way he does, in my eyes. I’ve played with a lot of bass players and Kevin, our original bass player, was a really fine player, but Skip [Vangelas] gets it on a level that tickles me pink every night when I play with him. He’s driving the train. With this kind of music, you think about Phil Lesh, one of the most aggressive bass players that lived in rock, and you have to have that kind of force in order for this music to continue and evolve and go forward. We have all the pieces in place now and Skip has been in the band 6 months and it really has taken off.

Jeff: As I said, I am only in DSO for the last five years, but I would certainly attribute the band’s continued and growing success to it being comprised of seven incredibly talented Deadhead musicians who love what they do and all get along really well with each other. And DSO has the best crew in the business!

DSO has been responsible for turning on many Heads that were not even old enough to have seen Jerry. As the band has evolved, have you seen your fan base evolve? Do you see younger heads coming to your shows?

Dino: Yes, the audience has evolved. Probably most notably with the change of the lead guitar player slot. I think with the addition of Jeff Mattson in 2009, our crowd actually got to be older in general as Jeff has been playing professionally for so long and he has many devoted fans from way back. I think prior to that we were turning on a lot of kids to the music. A lot of those kids understandably jumped on the Furthur bandwagon with (DSO founding guitarist John Kadlecik) JK when he went to play with them, as it was exciting to see uniting of two of the original guys with John. But the kids are rediscovering us with Jeff Mattson. They are feeling how much depth and experience Jeff brings to the plate. They also like the aggressive approach Jeff plays when the music calls for it. Our crowds are now are bigger than they have ever been.

Rob: A lot of the younger heads jumped on the Furthur bandwagon and rightly so, because Phil and Bob are living legends and I think the kids wanted to be part of that big scene that they heard so much about over time. It’s like lore, it’s fabled and all of a sudden, they have a chance to jump on that train and they did. But, they weren’t getting the music quite the way when they were listening to let’s say, tapes or cd’s of past shows. Furthur had their way of doing this music and it was fine and dandy, but DSO gets more into the primal thing.

I think we’ve got it now to the point that these young kids that are coming and we are seeing an increasing amount now that Furthur is off the road, we’re seeing a lot more younger kids and they’re really getting it. They’re getting a taste of that late 60s, early 70s, mid 70s thing, or even the 80s thing. These were kids that were born in the 90s, they were in diapers when Jerry passed away or they weren’t even born yet. And there’s also a lot of Heads that only saw the very tail end of the Dead, like the early 90s until Jerry died, and they never had a chance to witness that real primal LSD jam thing and they’re finally getting a chance to do that. I get more and more of those kind of people coming up to me and going “Wow, all I’m used to is seeing the Dead in the 90s and this is the real shit right here.” I’m proud of that. I know we have our detractors that say we’re living off this legacy, but we don’t look at it that way. We truly love to play. The songs themselves are sacred to me. The lyrics and the melodies are timeless and need be played no matter what and you would never fault a symphony orchestra for playing Bach and Beethoven, nor would you fault a jazz player for playing standards, so I don’t understand why people can tear on us for playing the most amazing music written in the 20th century.

Jeff: Yes, absolutely. The older Deadheads keep coming but there has been a huge influx of much younger kids who love this music. I think that what they are experiencing seeing DSO shows is kind of similar to what I experienced as a 14 year old going to my first Grateful Dead show. For the older folks, seeing a DSO show is a way to relive some of the great Dead shows from their past. For the younger people, it is a chance to see what it might have been like.

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There are 33 comments associated with this post

Hal Kent May 20, 2014, 13:19:16

Just awful. These guys would have gotten zero gigs if they made their own music. Quit riding coattails and Do Something Original. Please.

Benjamin Dennis May 20, 2014, 15:56:26

As a Deadhead I must say, Hal Kent, that you simply don’t get it. Your loss.

RST May 20, 2014, 18:27:53

Congrats to DSO! They do a great job. Although “down to every detail” is far too strong, and I’m sure the members themselves would agree.

Ken May 21, 2014, 05:12:08

Nice picture.

Kidman Zeale May 21, 2014, 06:50:49

DSO is the best at “re-creating” Dead shows. They are all great musicians. When Bobby and Phil can no longer play – well, DSO will be playing arenas with huge “shakedowns” outside. 3-4 night runs. Write it down in ink. Older fans will appreciate the dedication and newer fans will get a taste, and sometimes more, of the magic of 70s-80s Dead shows. Turn it up!

polarbear May 21, 2014, 14:47:59

Biily K told the truth about this band a few years back in an interview at All Good

Marc S. May 21, 2014, 17:00:30

If you don’t like what DSO does, don’t listen or go. When I need a fix of Dead music DSO really works for me. Your mileage may vary!

Joshua Katt May 21, 2014, 17:57:12

Nice that they are an option to see and have made a living doing this. I over paid in 2012 like $150 for 2 tickets and will probably not do again while Bobby, Phil & especially Furthur are still around. Definitely some Furthur bashing hidden in the article. Wonder what tiny % of the going audience really cares or can tell what year/era/style/setlist is being played as an awful lot of effort seems to go into it.

gratefulfred May 21, 2014, 18:59:11

I worked for the Dead and nobody is evergonna come close to the Dead copy bands suck NO DEAD NO HEAD

gratefulfred May 21, 2014, 19:02:51

you guys a a tribute band i worked for the dead and nobody will ever fill there spot

DJ Johnson May 21, 2014, 20:20:32

Kreutzmann’s interview from 2009.

jim kearns May 22, 2014, 00:37:37

give these guys a break-they obviously understand and respect what the Dead are all about,they are excellent musicians,and people enjoy coming out to see them-my first show was in 1969 and ,frankly,it’s a lot of fun going out to “relive” a show I may have seen 30 or 40 yrs.ago….if that doesn’t appeal to others,fine,stay home,but there’s no reason to trash these guys,they are truly deadicated

Nick May 22, 2014, 01:19:05

I’ve seen them close to 100 times and have treasured each show. I can’t thank all the band and crew enough for creating such amazing and important music. Don’t ever stop!

Steve Felt May 22, 2014, 02:06:55

As a Dead Head with 100 shows under my belt from the 80’s and 90’s I have to say I didn’t want to attend a DSO concert for a long time because they just weren’t the GD. But I am happy that a good friend and fellow DH convinced me to go see them in Boulder, CO last year because it was an incredible show and they really have made it feel like a Dead show. I am a converted fan and looking forward to many more shows in the future. See ya in Denver July 4th.

AugustWest85 May 22, 2014, 08:56:47

I had no desire to see a Dead cover band. My friend got me a tic to see DSO at a club in D.C. in 2000, I think, maybe ’01, it was his B-Day, so I went. A couple of my other GD friends came along, whatever. We had a spot on the left by the stage, and I went out back by the bar to wait for my friend who hadn’t showed yet. DSO walks on stage, I thought they looked the part. Anyway, they tear into a “Promised Land”, turned out to be a ’76 show. I see my friend come through the entrance, where you couldn’t yet see the stage. He’s like, “is that the band?”, undoubtedly thinking a Dicks Pick was being played to warm up the crowd, and I’m like, “yep!” I’ve probably seen 30 some shows, all but two or so were at least good, and ten plus amazing shows. The work these guys put in to what they do is simply staggering, I have come to absolutely rely on a couple three nights a year when I can shake it like it ’87 at the Spectrum. Congrats guys, and thank you!!

dk70 May 22, 2014, 09:11:22

I am very happy for Jeff Mattson. I used to go see the guy in the late 80s when the Zens were still called “The Volunteers”. They were crushing tunes the Dead (at that particular point) were not playing: Dark Star, St Stephen, The 11, Help Slip Franklin’s. They had a female singer and really captured that 70s vibe. Jeff was a always super cool and answered every question this young guitar player threw at him. Hate on this band all you want but they are fine players and love the music profusely. They DO provide a service for a lot of young kids who want to hear the amazing monolith that is the GD canon live. What they do is very hard work and they put smiles on faces. Nuff said.

TCB May 22, 2014, 09:46:33

When are you people going to realize? DSO sounds exactly like the dead because they are lipsynching. They will eventually be exposed like Milli Vanilli. The drummer is actually a hologram. The rest are real people but carpenters by trade. They cant play music.

TCB May 22, 2014, 09:56:05

I will be @BB show June 3 if any of you’s would like to meet up in the men’s room.

Nica May 22, 2014, 10:55:12

I have proudly been a Deadhead for what feels like most of my life, seeing shows in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s up until that horrible day in August. I’ve seen all the aftermath bands since then as well. I too hesitated seeing DSO but finally did about 8 years ago and enjoyed the experience. I continued seeing Furthur and others. I am fortunate to live 10 minutes from TXR, which I have labeled “ the happiest place on earth”! I even popped in on DSO during their recent run there. My friend and I decided at the last minute that we wanted to go to The Great American Music Hall to catch the band surpass The Dead in number of shows.
All I can say is I’m so happy we did. I can’t hardly believe that I can say this, but since that night I’ve thought about what I’m about to say so many times but still come up with the same thought….that I can only describe that night as “one of the greatest Grateful Dead Shows EVER! “
I’m so happy these guys are letting me take that ride again!!
Thank you….for a real good time!!

NugJarJarBinks May 22, 2014, 12:25:28

I love the dead more than any other music, however DSO is a complete joke. How can they charge $40+ to copy someone’s music? I might as well be paying for bootleg CDs too. At least Furthur has Russo. Lol @ DSO ever playing arenas. Their popularity has been slowly dying. Most young jam bands fans don’t get it. Hell, Phil and Friends couldn’t even sell 20,000 over a 3 night run in Colorado last year.

kidman Zeale May 22, 2014, 14:05:00

Hey Nug, Time will tell. I saw Jerry over 100 times. With the many epic Dead shows I saw i also witnessed some horrific ones. mid 80’s with Phil and Heineken and Jerry on H and also a few at the end that were just plain sad. “At least Furthur has Russo.” Not sure what that means but he is fantastic but not an original member, yes? Sure, DSO drummers are just adequate but its about the experience. Here it is: All Dead copy bands except Furthur usually have 2 guitarists sharing lead guitar.( I know, Bob played “lead” rhythm) DSO stays true to early and late Dead and they play loud when appropriate and have the 2 guitarists playing the original parts. I paid $139 to see Phil in May at the Cap and one night was strong and the other was sloppy, messy and the sound at both shows was good/bad depending on where you were standing/sitting. I checked out the whole place. To gratefulfred: what did you do for the Dead…?

St Stephen May 22, 2014, 14:13:01

Being born in 81 and not falling in love with the Dead until the early 2000’s, these guys have only helped fuel my passion for the GD. It’s lame to read all of this smug press about a group that plays the music with such talent and respect. If it weren’t for these guys I would not have the same appreciation for GD music that I do today. I have seen their evolution for over 10 years and I can honestly say….they are the BEST I have ever heard them. Major kudos to Jeff on lead. Thank you for shredding those psychedelic jams my friend!! It’s beautiful. Friday night at the GAMH changed my life.

St Stephen May 22, 2014, 14:16:45

Nica….was that show on Friday night? If so, wow! I know what ya mean. Not to mention, I loved how appropriate the Sunday encore of “Palm Sunday” was played.

Kyli May 22, 2014, 21:22:58

Hey ya’ll check out, Stuart’s Giant
Gives DSO a run for their money…

Keep it real May 23, 2014, 08:59:51

Let’s keep it real here; DSO might be a good or even great band but they are nothing, not even 1%, like the Grateful Dead. Sure their gimmick may be cheesy but they make good music. It is that you are not having a Grateful Dead experience when you see them just a DSO one. Not to say it is better or worse just a completly diffrrent thing. In reality DSO music is disposable, it maybe fun in the moment but that’s about it. No point in taping or listening to a setlist that has already been performed by a better band. While as an artist this sounds like hell to me, everybody’s got to eat and if they can get Heads to lay out good cash for a gimmick more power to them.

Otto May 23, 2014, 13:06:13

Every day losers like Hal Kent accept shit from politticains corporations and religions and acts like the obedient acquiescent dog that he is. But when it comes to the simple things in life, like choosing to see a band or not, Hal is all negative opinions. Way to take a stand Hal Kent. Hope you get the karma you deserve buddy!

Marty May 27, 2014, 11:26:03

Hal, you are ruining our entire species. Please kill yourself.

Charles Brown May 27, 2014, 20:54:00

Wow, someone wasted that much of their life…100 shows. Too bad for you. And the rest of you….you dont get it..the dead was an American original…..DSO is more like tang….a copy of something great that is prolly best to avoid!!!

f u marty May 28, 2014, 12:26:50

Classy Marty. No wonder deadhead have such a fine reputation. You are a sick person that should seek counseling soon.

sean May 29, 2014, 17:26:06

Hal Kent, you don’t know much. DSO is also several other bands. DSO is just what they’re called when doing Dead Music. One of their other bands, Tye-Dye Harvest is a HUGELY successful Cleveland band.

sean May 29, 2014, 17:28:26


bobby's oxycotton May 30, 2014, 15:15:57

jeff smokes fake jerr by stratospheres!!!

MS GD lifer May 30, 2014, 16:32:58

Thanks for the enjoyable interview with a great bunch of musicians. You heard it from Barraco… he played w Phil’s band and some monster players, but there is something about DSO that just really works. I had more than 100 GD shows from 1972 onward and truly have enjoyed DSO’s take on making the audience have a transformative experience. Not many other bands have been so dedicated to trying to keep the magic alive. If you don’t want to come to the show and dance, then you can do what you want— but this is very much an “on the bus” type of experience for many of us. What else is anyone offering that can get you to that special place?? Yes, some damn good jam bands (featured on this site) – but few capture “the meaning” that the GD brought to us. Hunter’s lyrics are meant to be sung over and over again! It’s sad that Jerry isn’t here to do so, but the songs need to live and breathe and embrace us and move us to dancing… thanks all of you in DSO for making that happen!

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