DSO Carries Torch
DARK STAR CARRIES TORCH
Grateful Dead music 'alive and well' with tribute band
By Walter Tunis
CONTRIBUTING MUSIC WRITER
Establishing a reputation as a cover band is nothing new. Lots of acts have done it. Members gather out of collective admiration for a singular artist, perhaps play the bar circuit, and hopefully have a fun time along the way.
Dark Star Orchestra, however, has taken the premise to an almost unimaginable level. As torchbearers of music created by the quintessential jam band, the Grateful Dead, the DSO has played not just bars but also sold-out theaters and formal concert halls.
And when it comes to repertoire, it doesn't simply dish out cover tunes. It stages re-creations of entire performance set lists, song by song, from the Dead's 30-year career.
"It's not a note-for-note thing," said DSO drummer Dino English. "That would be pointless. But it is arrangement for arrangement. We know the early '70s arrangements are going to be faster and more upbeat than ones from the late '70s. Similarly, there was a cleaner guitar sound in the '70s shows, where the '80s saw a little more distortion ... you know, something a little dirtier."
Just how credible has the DSO's take on Dead music been? Credible enough that surviving members of the Dead -- including guitarist-vocalist Bob Weir and drummer Bill Kreutzmann -- have been eager to sit in at some shows.
"Playing with Bob was the highlight of my musical career," English said. "It's not so much what he said. It was his look. Coming offstage, he had 'really good time' written all over his face. Playing with Bill was a pleasure, too. In that instance, I just stepped off the drum kit and let him play. He got a real kick out of it."
Chicago-based DSO has been bringing the Dead musically back to life for over eight years. But recent times have been tough. The Dead split up more than a decade ago, shortly after the death of cornerstone guitarist Jerry Garcia. While the remaining members occasionally regroup, the legacy of the Dead understandably fades with each passing year. That has pushed DSO back into smaller halls and clubs.
"The music is still alive and well," English said. "Granted, it's on a bit of a smaller scale these days. But the same kind of vibe takes place. It just takes place in smaller venues."
The hardest kick came last spring. In April, DSO co-founder, keyboardist and vocalist Scott Larned died of a heart attack at age 35. Suddenly, the band had to face a slimming fan base of Deadheads without a key architect of what The Washington Post described as "the hottest Grateful Dead tribute band going."
"All things considered, we're in a good state," English said. "We've had some challenging times with Scott's passing. But we've all stepped up to the plate, taken on more responsibilities -- just day-to-day stuff, mostly -- and have continued to get things accomplished. That's because there's very much a family dynamic at work here. We're a family that spends a lot of time together."
DSO continues to tour with keyboard help from Dan Klepinger and, on occasion, Rob Barraco (who regularly performs with Dead bassist Phil Lesh).
In between tours, English has assembled a studio side project called Shimmy Shack, which he hopes to soon launch as a part-time performance entity called the Vortex Brothers. But it will still be the legacy of the Dead that fuels his music in and out of DSO. It is a legacy Larned saw a need to keep alive after the Dead itself was gone.
"It never occurred to any of us that Dark Star would go this far," Larned said before a DSO concert at the Kentucky Theatre in February 2002. "We were all in a mourning period, I guess you could say, for a while. I stopped listening to the Dead, after Jerry died, for a long time.
"So there was no way to guess how people were going to take what we doing with Dark Star. We thought we'd be lucky to get a good bar gig out of it. To be able to take it to this level is just spectacular."
Dark Star Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Tue.
Where: The Dame, 156 W. Main St.
Call: (859) 226-9005.