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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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