Interview with DSO's Dino English
David Hyland interviewed DSO drummer Dino English for the WISC-TV:
Interview: Dark Star Orchestra Brings Life To Dead Experience
Grateful Dead Tribute Band Comes Truckin' Into Madison, Chicago
David Hyland, Staff Writer
MADISON, Wis. -- It's a macabre joke that many of the dancing skeletons that once populated the Grateful Dead's album covers and promotional material can now be assigned to represent deceased band members.
The legendary classic-rock band became more famous for their hippie-hypnotizing live shows than their recorded output, but it officially dissolved in 1995 after guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia suddenly passed away. For many, however, the Dead's concert experience was a trip worth reliving.
While some of the Deadhead flock would rally around the remaining members of the Dead playing in assorted combinations or move on to Phish or other luminaries of the jam-band movement who emerged in the '80s and '90s in the Dead's wake, other fans sought a show closer to this original psychedelic-rock ritual. Much closer. Enter the Dark Star Orchestra.
The seven-piece group is perhaps the country's most successful Grateful Dead tribute band. It is so successful that the band has been able to lure keyboardist Rob Barraco, who toured with the reformed Dead in 2003 and 2004, to sometimes join it on the road. The group will play Thursday night at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison followed by a two-night stand at Park West in Chicago on Friday and Saturday.
In a recent phone interview from his hometown of St. Louis (and the first stop in the band's latest tour swing), longtime drummer Dino English said that his group strives to authentically recreate the experience of the Dead on stage. He said that for each show, the band members will select a particular show from the hundreds of gigs that the Dead performed during their 30 years on the road (He said that occasional performance is culled from among the group's favorite numbers). English said that they attempt to duplicate musical arrangements, utilize particular equipment and reproduce instrumental tones from that period so as to come close to the original.
But, rather than being professional copycats, the 38-year-old English said that the band walks a fine line between reproducing the Dead material and attempting straight-out mimicry. He also acknowledges the irony in attempting a night-by-night homage to a band equally renowned and reviled for its improvisations.
"We're not trying to copy jams. We are trying to evolve with the music," he said. "It's very much a live beast. When the music plays, it becomes this organic entity. We are here to let that grow."
He said it is in the improvisations that the Orchestra's members can stretch beyond the mandate of their mission and offer glimpses of their own sensibilities.
"Improvisation is a large part of what we do," English said. "We don't do shows note-for-note. Some people think we do. That's not our approach at all. We do a show in the style of that time. We make sure all the harmonies and melodies (are there). But, when it comes time to do the jams, it's us."
"To do shows note-for-note would not be what the Dead were doing at all," he said. "We stay away from that kind of thing."
English, who saw about 20 Dead shows himself, said that the Orchestra's performances tend to focus on the Dead's '70s and '80s period when the original group was at its jamming zenith. Curiously, although the Dead represents the epitome of '60s rock and the later part of that decade saw the Dead record their most seminal albums, English said the Orchestra steers clear of those years when selecting performances. He said that the Orchestra also tends to omit the blues-ier material performed by keyboardist/vocalist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan -- typically a highlight of the Dead's late '60s and early '70s concerts.
"We don't do any shows from the '60s because their song repertoire was fairly scaled down," he said. "It's a little garage band-y. They refined their sound going into the '70s."
English said that the band's open-arms approach to different genres of music goes a long way to explain the Dead's enduring appeal.
"I thought they were really clever about bringing all these musical styles together and putting it in a forum where people were willing to listen to music," he said. "They were really good at turning other people on to other kinds of musical styles. Someone could find something they liked about something."
Likewise, English said that most of the remaining members of the Dead and their organization have responded warmly to the Orchestra's efforts. English said that members of the Dead's road crew routinely come to the Orchestra's Bay Area shows and drummer Bill Kreutzmann and guitarist Bob Weir have both sat in with the group. Drummer Mickey Hart has yet to share the stage but has reportedly given them the thumbs-up.
"That's what gives us joy. It's nice to supply a place for these guys who worked together forever to come back. It's kind of like a family reunion," he said. "It really gives us a special feeling to be able to facilitate that."
English said that only bassist Phil Lesh has kept the Orchestra at arms' length.
"Phil is another story," he said. "He's the only one who is really standoffish to us. I believe it's because he hasn't checked us out. I think if he does come check us out, if he just gives us a chance, he'll have a good time. He doesn't understand what's going on."
One area in which Dark Star Orchestra seeks to introduce something uniquely its own is by streaming all its concerts through the group's Web site. English said that the band is pioneering an effort so that each of its performances will be available via download on a pay-per-view basis and that those who buy the download beforehand can listen and, in some cases, watch the concert streaming live over the Web.
He said that a video feed will initially occur only 10 to 20 percent of the time, depending on the venue's Web connection and whether the group can spare the manpower to run cameras.
Another important difference that separates the Orchestra from the original Dead is its commitment to the road. Like its inspirations, the Orchestra has refined its repertoire by being road dogs. Begun in Chicago in 1997 and enjoying a mostly solidified lineup since 2001, the band now tours year around, playing about 160 shows and averaging 225 days on the road per year. This is a more ambitious exhaustive itinerary than what the Dead attempted.
"We do twice as many as the Grateful Dead typically did (every year)," English said. "We're on track to do the amount of shows that they did in half the amount of time."
But as was the case with the Dead, English cites the costly overhead of supporting a large road crew and a seven-piece band that has kept them chained to touring. At the same time, he reiterates their commitment to the music.
"What keeps us here is our love of this music. We're all basically addicted to it," he said.
Perhaps like the Dead's concert experience itself, English finds the reasons for his ongoing loyalty and preserving passion for the music is a bit nebulous.
"People who attended Grateful Dead shows know that something very magical happened," he said. "People would go to shows and get this magic feeling. It's the reason that people kept coming back night after night. We are here for that same reason. We hope to give the listener a cathartic experience. All these things come together to … hopefully create an atmosphere where this special thing can happen. And that's what we're here for."
For More Info:
Dark Star Orchestra's Official Web Site
Dark Star Orchestra's MySpace Page
***graphic from RehcerTheatre.com***