It ought to come as no real surprise that certain outfits are embracing the cover band concept and reaping rewards as a result. Consequently, there's a veritable cottage industry that flourishes via tributes to the Beatles (natch), Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin (led by the son of drummer John Bonham no less), and a whole host of others. In many cases, the original band is defunct, and now they, the tribute band, can recreate every note and serve as the next best thing. And why not? When bands like Journey, Yes, and Foreigner are finding new singers by scouring YouTube, it's a clear sign that the public is ready to accept new incarnations of the old.
Still, one has to credit Dark Star Orchestra with earning more than a hint of actual legitimacy. Keyboard player Rob Barraco performed with the Dead bassist Phil Lesh in his band Phil Lesh and Friends and also toured with the reunited band that went by the abbreviated name the Dead in 2002 and 2003. Likewise, guitarist Jeff Mattson has also played with Lesh, as well as onetime Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux. Singer Lisa Mackey claims to having seen over 200 Grateful Dead shows since 1973 while bassist Kevin Rosen says he's seen 93. Drummers Rob Koritz and Dino English swear their devotion as well.
Even so, the most essential factoid that contributes to their cred may well be the number of shows that Dark Star Orchestra itself has performed as a unit. Consider the fact that in their full 30 years of activity, up until the point that their visionary Jerry Garcia shed his mortal coil, the original Grateful Dead accumulated 2,318 concerts. When Dark Star play the Dead's hometown turf this April, they will actually eclipse that total. And they've accomplished that feat in only about half the time.
Formed in Chicago in November 1997, and taking their handle from what may well be the Dead's best known psychedelic instrumental, Dark Star Orchestra played its first gigs to modest crowds that year. Soon the buzz around the band began to spread. It became evident that Dark Star were in a position to attract the same sort of devoted followers reserved for their predecessors. We asked Rob Barraco to fill us in on the band's MO.
New Times: Clearly, you guys were Dead fans from the get-go. But do you consider yourselves actually Deadheads as well? How many Grateful Dead shows did you see early on, and at what point did you become a diehard devotee?
Rob Barraco: I was definitely as a Deadhead as a teenager and later, a young man. I saw upwards of about 100 shows and would have probably seen more if I were not a professional musician and working so much. I was really confirmed at my first show -- that was it, I was done! That first show was March 28, 1972 at the Academy of Music in New York City. It was the only time I saw them with their original vocalist and keyboardist, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, but I became an instant, huge Phil Lesh freak!
So does Dark Star Orchestra set out to recreate specific Grateful Dead concerts, or is it more a virtual Dead show with songs from all their different eras?
We do perform the recreations of historic Grateful Dead setlists and we aim to recreate the sound and audio offering of what the Grateful Dead sounded like on that particular date. And since the Grateful Dead had five different keyboardists, I have to replicate the most people! For instance, in a 1960s era show, we'll have songs that I sing when a Pigpen song comes up. When we do a 1970s show, we have our female vocalist Lisa Mackey recreate the stellar vocals of then-singer Donna Jean Godchaux. And with a 1980s era show, I bring out my Hammond B3 organ and synth to recreate the sound of '80s keyboardist Brent Mydland.
With each different Grateful Dead era, we recreate the energy and musical offering of that time in which they performed. We set the stage up the way they did. For instance in the '80s the Dead drummers had a huge set up with not only the drumsets in the front, but another huge row of drums behind the two drummers. So we bring that!
Never ever do we recreate the songs or shows note for note. It's more about the style, the feel, the jams. And about 25% of the shows we play have us doing what we call our "elective sets" or original setlists. These are ALL Grateful Dead songs, but not in a historical offering of us doing a show song for song. We have fun with these and we love them too because we can mix and meld eras, and have a lot of fun seguing songs that never were played that way.
So how often are you adding new songs to the set?
Probably once a tour, we'll add one or two new songs. We don't have all that many left that we haven't done!
Have you ever gotten any reaction or feedback from members of the Dead? Have they ever asked you to perform with them in their various conglomerations?
Having long standing history of playing with Phil Lesh & Friends and The Dead, Phil Lesh and I have become quite close. And when I joined Dark Star Orchestra, their guitarist Bob Weir sat in with the band, which he's done on three separate occasions.
I approached Phil about sitting in with us in the fall of 2012 and he joined Dark Star Orchestra on stage at the Fillmore in October 2012, for one entire full set. A month later, I asked him what he thought of that experience, and he said, "Man, it was like going home!" Additionally, all the living members of the Grateful Dead have shared the stage with us! Donna Jean Godchaux is a close friend, Tom Constanten (keyboards) played with us in the past, the now deceased Vince Welnick played with us, and original Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann has as well.
What is your personal favorite Grateful Dead era and album?
My personal favorite era took place in the fall of 1972. I just think that was the pinnacle of the one drummer experiment... And '73 and '74 were an extension of that whole vocabulary they were developing. But in 1972, it really solidified. The albums Wake of the Flood and Blues for Allah are my personal favorites.
When you're playing with a tribute band, do you ever feel like you're morphing into the musicians you are saluting? In other words, is there ever a sense that you lose your own identity by recreating the work of others? Have you ever thought of breaking out and trying to offer up music of your own?
Not at all. On the contrary, despite the constraints of playing this kind of music and the fact that we have this blueprint that we have to follow, we still put our own personalities into it. The only way to be true to the music is to improvise all the time. The outcome of the jams are never determined; instead, they are all determined in the moment. This is why I think the audience loves what we do!
Do the people that come to your concerts react as if they're watching Dead themselves? Does it sometimes seem like it's difficult for them to make the separation?
I think most of the people who come to see us do so for the same reason we play the music. We want to go on a journey, and they want to go on a journey, and we love to take them on that journey! I think there are some skeptics who expect us to be a cover band, but in the end, they get their socks blown off because we end up giving them the same experience that they had at the real Grateful Dead shows. We give them something they were not expecting, and many get really emotional about it.
We get people saying, "I never thought I could feel that way again." And then there's the generation who never got to see Garcia or the Dead, and so they are going on the journey for the first time, and we give them that historical and accurate sound that accompanied the music of the Grateful Dead.
How frequently are you guys out on the road?
We are out on the road over six months of the year -- more than half a year -- so that includes over 220 days of travel and shows each year. It's a lot, but we love sharing this music with the fans since we can tell how happy it makes them. Their energy vitalizes us as well!
The Dark Star Orchestra, 8 p.m., Tuesday, February 25, at Revolution Live, 100 SW 3rd Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $38.50. Call 800-745-3000, or visit jointherevolution.net.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism