Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dark Star Orchestra will take you back in time

From Concord Monitor:

Dark Star Orchestra will take you back in time
Grateful Dead shows brought back to life
For the Monitor

By the age of 7, the Beatles-obsessed Rob Barraco had co-opted his family's old tennis rackets, using them to play pretend guitar. Endlessly. By the age of 14, Barraco had seen his first live Grateful Dead show, and by the age of 15 he was officially a Deadhead. Now, at the age of - well, the Grateful Dead would be the first to tell you that age isn't important in the scheme of the universe, so we'll just say over 30, Barraco is a veteran of the Dead's Phil Lesh Band and is currently a semi-permanent member of the Dark Star Orchestra, a Dead tribute band with a twist.

The twist: The band - DSO to aficionados - performs each show based on an actual set list from a Grateful Dead show. So, while you might be attending a show on, say, Nov. 17, 2005, at the Capitol Center here in Concord (hey - that's tonight!), you may find yourself very nearly transported back to August of 1972 or December of 1986, complete with those improvisational, long-versions of certain songs, the encores, the specific styles the Dead embraced as they evolved.

"The really beautiful thing about the Dead was how they were constantly reinventing themselves, reinvigorating themselves and the music," Barraco said. "A band that stays around that long always runs the risk of becoming mediocre or alienating the fans by changing too much or too little. That didn't happen for the Dead."

Dark Star is named for one of those ethereal Grateful Dead songs that nicely envelopes vague profundity: "dark star crashes / pouring it's light into ashes/. . . shall we go, you and I/ while we can / through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?"

The band chooses a particular Dead tour and set for each show, often using vintage instruments and being faithful to the way a particular song was played in a particular Grateful Dead era. This means that, for example, if the Dead's 1977 tour tended to include a long version of "Uncle John's Band" intertwined with one of Jerry Garcia's bluegrass-tinged compositions, DSO will use that version as its starting point when recreating a 1977 show.

Similarly, when DSO offers a show from the early '70s - when the Dead had two drummers -DSO has two drummers as well.

Barraco is careful to draw a line, though, between mimick and interpretation - the former being what straight cover bands offer, the latter being more akin to the artistic efforts of DSO.

"There tends to be a misconception that we get the set list and just copy note for note for note," said Barraco. "I only know how to play like me. This works because we are all so familiar with the music and the musicians, inside and out, so we can take the inspiration and bring it to another level that isn't possible in most cover bands."

DSO was formed in 1997 by veterans of other Dead tribute bands looking to share that Dead affection with others. Earlier this year, co-founder and keyboardist Scott Larned died of heart failure at the age of 35, eerily echoing the Grateful Dead's own sad history with keyboardists dying prematurely.

After Larned's death, Barraco -who had switched primarily to keyboards after his early tennis racket-guitar days - was asked to temporarily sit in with DSO. So far, the seat has been a comfortable one.

"According to my dad, I was reacting to music from the time I was like 6 months old. I was always sort of this sponge, absorbing what I heard and saw, from the time I watched John Lennon standing there in that bow-legged stance on Ed Sullivan to my first Dead show," Barraco said. "With the Dead, I learned about jam bands -improv - and the infinite possibilities of music."
By the time he was in college, Barraco found a new passion - jazz - and turned in his official Deadhead card for the lush sounds of John Coltrane. By the 1980s, he was working frequently with other progressive artists; he was one of the musicians featured on those brief intro and outro jazzy breaks heard on The Cosby Show before and after commercials.

"It was incredibly lucrative, and I got to hobnob and perform with great musicians - for four seconds or so at a time!" said Barraco.

Eventually, Baracco got a call from another Dead-inspired band, the Zen Tricksters, and he began sitting in with them and rediscovering his Dead passion.

From there, he found an audience - and eventually, work - with the Dead's Phil Lesh. He also toured with the reformed Dead in 2002 and 2003. Baracco's long, strange trip has taken him back to his early roots - the Dead. By way of the DSO.

"Dark Star and the Dead are like nothing I've ever experienced - it's wondrous and warm," said Barraco. "Simply, people love this music."


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