Thursday, December 15, 2005

Dark Star improvises Grateful Dead music

From Pittsburgh Live:

Dark Star improvises Grateful Dead music
By Regis Behe

A Dark Star Orchestra concert bears resemblance to a Grateful Dead show in only the most basic of details. The songs are the same, but those looking for a note-by-note renditions of a Fillmore West show from 1976 might want to dig into their tape collections instead.
"First of all, it's a disservice to the music and probably impossible to do," says guitarist and vocalist Rob Eaton, who performs Friday with Dark Star Orchestra at Mr. Small's Fuhouse Theatre in Millvale. "And you wouldn't want to do it. This music is all based on improvisation and there's no one way to play it at any particular time. Because of that fact, because of its freedom to explore, even on a night-to-night basis any particular tune, it's always different, it's always new, it's always fresh because of that aspect."

Formed in Chicago in 1997, Dark Star Orchestra has made a career out of covering the Dead's music. Ostensibly a tribute band, they're a cut above similar entities, having earned the imprimatur of Dead alums Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Vince Welnick and Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackey, who have joined the band onstage.

Eaton sees the band as part of a continuum that started with the Dead in the early 1960s and exist now in a variety of entities. For those too young to have caught the original band, it's a chance to hear what they missed.

"That aspect of the Grateful Dead's music, that improvisation on a nightly basis that's never the same again, is something that translates to different generations without becoming stale and mundane," Eaton says.

In that manner, a Dark Star Orchestra show is more akin to hearing a jazz ensemble taking flight rather than a rock band kicking out the jams. While the group is known for re-creating shows from the Dead archives, Eaton admits the concerts he likes best are the ones in which Dark Star Orchestra creates new setlists extemporaneously.

"We're able to take all that we know and all the styles of the Grateful Dead that we've learned over the course of years and all the little detailed things we've picked up along the way and gotten inside, and bring all of that to the table in one show," Eaton says. "That's where it gets the best for me. I can take everything I know, this catalog of music that the Dead never had at one particular time. The Dead's material changed over the years, and they would drop songs, add songs, and some songs they never played live. We have this huge catalog of music at our disposal on any particular night they never had at one time."

While the music is the attraction to any Dark Star show, the sense of community that Dead promoted is also present. Eaton thinks those elements are crucial, that one without the other would provide less than a total experience.

"It works in symmetry," he says. "The community and the people bring a certain aspect that helps determine where that music goes and what it does."

Dark Star Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Admission: $18 advance, $20 door.
Where: Mr. Small's Theatre, Millvale.
Details: 412-821-4447, or


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