Playing in the Band
Dark Star Orchestra honors ultimate jam band the Grateful Dead through a cosmic combination of improvisation and academic devotion
There are cover bands, there are tribute acts — and then there’s Dark Star Orchestra. A septet with members scattered across the United States, Dark Star Orchestra meticulously recreates past Grateful Dead concerts while imbuing their work with the same free-flowing spontaneity for which the Dead was revered. Since forming in 1997, DSO has played more than 2,150 shows, cataloging its sets with an awe-inspiring attention to detail that jibes well with the minutiae-obsessed Deadhead community. The band has even enjoyed the supreme honor of having its alumni graduate to performing with founding Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. But as Dark Star Orchestra keyboardist Rob Barraco told Folio Weekly, DSO keeps on truckin’ with its own festival and cruise, its own improvisational ethos and its own cosmic connection with diehard audiences.
Folio Weekly: Dark Star Orchestra started its latest tour in Minnesota, so the band must be pumped to end up in Florida later this month.
Rob Barraco: Big time. I can’t wait. And Jacksonville Beach is such a beautiful place. Every year, we start our winter tour in the frozen North and wend our way down into the South to end up in Florida. Except this year, it’s a week in Florida and a week in Jamaica [on the Jam in the Sand cruise].
F.W.: Each of the seven Dark Star members lives in different states. How do you all practice?
R.B.: Two of us live in New York, our singer Lisa lives in Pennsylvania, we have two guys out in St. Louis, one guy in Chicago and one guy in Colorado. So we don’t get any practice time; that comes during sound checks and shows. At this point, it’s just not necessary. We know what we have to do, so we meet in a common city, get on a tour bus and away we go.
F.W.: Kind of the way Grateful Dead did it, right?
R.B.: When you saw Grateful Dead back in the day, you knew that on any given night you were going to be taken on a journey. You had no idea what the final destination was going to be, but you knew you were going willingly. And you had to see it live to understand. Back then, there were no bootlegs to listen to — just the records. So once you started going to shows, you realized they were making shit up every night, which was brilliant!
F.W.: So is that Dark Star Orchestra’s mission? To make stuff up but within the parameters of a past Dead show?
R.B.: Our mission is to recreate that journey. We have a blueprint for every show; say we’re going to do a set list from 1972 so, yes, we know the parameters of what that music is supposed to sound like. But from note one, it’s all improvised. There’s no way that we could ever truly recreate a Grateful Dead show in its entirety. It would take a lifetime to orchestrate — and it wouldn’t be any fun. The fun comes from being in the moment, reacting to the conversation your fellow musicians are having and actually taking ourselves on a journey that has an outcome that’s never written.
F.W.: For the band’s recent New Year’s Eve show, Dark Star Orchestra played a couple of Dead songs for the first time ever. After 2,150 shows, is there still territory left to cover?
R.B.: There are a handful of songs that we haven’t played, and other than some of the latter-day Dead stuff, we’ll eventually get to most of them. For that New Year’s show, [DSO frontman] Jeff [Mattson] called everybody up and suggested we try to do something special. So we learned those two tunes [“Let’s Spend The Night Together” and “Till The Morning Comes”] and boom — it worked. Now they’re a part of our repertoire. When we do elective shows, which we do, on average, every fourth show, we make up our own set list. The band was inspired by learning those new songs, so hopefully we’re going to learn a few more for this tour.
F.W.: So the band still has long-term plans. Do you foresee a day when Dark Star Orchestra will hang up its instruments?
R.B.: Nothing is written down; just like the nightly journey, touring is a journey unto itself. So we don’t have any plans to ever hang it up, unless it’s no longer fun. And we’re not interested in milestones. It’s about getting ourselves off and then having the audience be a part of it. The audience is the X-factor — the energy they give to us, which is recycled from what we’re giving them, hugely affects the outcome of a show.