photo: courtesy of DSO
You can call the members of Dark Star Orchestra
a lot of things. Hippies? Sure. Deadheads? Definitely. But copycats? Don't even try it. "What we do, there's nothing copied or studied or practiced. You can't copy this music," says DSO member Rob Eaton, who's been channeling the spirit of Grateful Dead guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir on an almost nightly basis for the past seven years.
Founded in Chicago in 1997 by guitarist John Kadlecik and late keyboardist Scott Larned, the Orchestra is widely recognized as the most authentic Dead tribute band around. But anyone involved with the project is quick to tell you that this is not a cover band.
"One of the big misconceptions is that we do note-for-note stuff, which is ludicrous," says Eaton, who joined the group in 1999 for a five-night stand at Martyrs and has been involved ever since. "First of all, you couldn't do one note-for-note show in a lifetime, and second of all, it would be completely against what the music is about, which is improvisation."
What the band does do is follow setlists from past Dead shows (say, the Hollywood Bowl in 1972) and recreate the vibe, if not the specifics, of each concert for a new audience. Eaton is currently in charge of choosing which show from the band's vaunted history the Orchestra will do next, and it's no easy task. "There's a lot of research that goes into it," he says. "I will look at the last five times we were in Chicago and try to find songs we haven't been doing or time periods we haven't been doing. Each time we go to a city, we'll try to give people a different look at the band to keep it interesting for everybody, including us."
About a third of DSO shows (there have been more than 1,300 of them) feature an "original" setlist, with the group handpicking songs in the same way the Dead might once have done.
Judging from the response, there's clearly still a huge market for this music and everything that goes along with it. "We have a pretty strong base of support pretty much wherever we go," says Eaton, noting that the audience typically includes everyone from teenagers to senior citizens. "I think the older people that come to see us aren't necessarily trying to relive the past, but the music was a really big part of their lives and it really meant something to them. Coming to our shows makes them feel good. Whether it's us playing it or someone else, there's a special energy that you only get when you're there."
The Dark Star Orchestra members know that feeling very well. Eaton estimates that he's been to about 400 Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows combined, and the rest of the group [Kadlecik (Garcia), Lisa Mackey (vocalist Donna Godchaux), Dino English (drummer Mickey Hart), Rob Koritz (drummer Bill Kreutzmann) and Kevin Rosen (bassist Phil Lesh)] has pretty much the same background. "We're all hardcore Deadheads, first and foremost. That's what enables us to do this on a nightly basis. I don't think you could be in a band like this and play the music like we do unless you're a hardcore Deadhead."
That's why it's particularly satisfying to know that so much of the Grateful Dead family supports what the DSO is doing, pushing it past mere "cover band" status.
"For us, what makes it all work, is when Donna Jean Godchaux wants to come sing with us, and Bobby (Weir) wants to come play with us; those are the types of things that sort of vindicate us," says Eaton. "Because those are the guys that were there from the beginning. And if they think it's OK, then that's all you need."
Coming soon to a stage near you: January 26 and 27 at the Park West.