Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) has been called a cover band by some, while others have tried to categorize it as a tribute band. However, DSO doesn’t really fit neatly into either slot; rather, the group commemorates and pays homage in its own unique way to its heroes who make up the legendary Grateful Dead.
“Dark Star Orchestra: Recreating the Grateful Dead Experience” will perform at Pantages Theater Sept. 27 as part of Broadway Center for the Performing Arts’ “American Music” series. It’s benefit concert; $1 from every ticket sold will benefit the Grateful Dead-founded Rex Foundation (www.rexfoundation.org), which in turn will benefit community organizations nationwide with grants to nonprofit groups in the arts, sciences and education.
“We mean different things to different people,” said DSO co-founder, lead guitarist and vocalist John Kadlecik. “In some sense we are a tribute band but we don’t try to do the look-alike thing.”
DSO recreates the Grateful Dead experience onstage by performing the exact set list of any one of the Dead’s 2,500 concerts song by song in the same arrangements used by the Dead members of that period. There’s a lot of material to choose from, spanning more than 30 years of Grateful Dead performances, but DSO doesn’t simply copy what the Dead have already done note for note. Dark Star Orchestra takes things one step farther by using the framework of the original set lists and seeing where the music goes at any given moment of the show.
Dark Star Orchestra formed in Chicago in 1997 and has since played more than 1,000 shows across the country. No two performances are alike, for DSO’s forte lies in improvisation, interpretation and solos, reflecting the spirit of the Dead whose freedom with music during their performances kept things fresh and always lively.
Kadlecik is “the Jerry Garcia” of DSO. As lead vocalist and lead guitarist, he sings with an uncanny resemblance to Garcia, using amp rigs and equipment to suit the near-exact Garcia guitar tone from the show being recreated. This is the type of attention to detail that sets the band apart from other Grateful Dead tribute bands, even down to placement of the microphones, which Kadlecik said allows for eye contact among the musicians for the purpose of improvisation.
Kadlecik formed the band with keyboardist Scott Larned, who died in 2005 from a heart attack. Rob Barracco now channels the sound of the many Grateful Dead keyboardists, also providing vocals as the Dead’s Brent Mydland did in the 1980s. DSO features two drummers. Dino English combines his training in percussion and jazz and his experience in Dead-oriented groups to deliver the rhythmic drumming sounds of the Grateful Dead’s drummer, Bill Kreutzmann. Filling in the Mickey Hart role on the other drum set is Rob Koritz, a classical and jazz-influenced musician. Like the Dead’s Phil Lesh, bassist Kevin Rosen provides a distinctive, fluid style of playing. On rhythm guitar and vocals, Rob Eaton provides an extension to the feeling, instrumentation and tone created by Bob Weir. When DSO plays a concert from the 1970s, vocalist Lisa Mackey provides female harmonies, just like Donna Godchaux did so many years ago.
“Playing with Dark Star Orchestra is something that feels just exactly like it felt when I was playing with the Grateful Dead,” Godchaux once said.
Kadlecik said that originally DSO planned to never repeat a show although they did once “by accident” and have since decided to wait a few years before repeating a show in a particular part of the country. After all, the band has some hardcore followers that see a lot of performances. “We have people who will do a whole tour with us,” Kadlecik remarked. “Sometimes within a certain region maybe 50-100 people will go to a whole run of shows. We try to create tours for ourselves that are also doable for people who choose to come along.”
When DSO played in Ithaca, N.Y., on May 8, 2007, Kadlecik said the mayor declared the day to be “Grateful Dead Day” in commemoration of the Dead’s infamous 1977 concert on that same date at the same place 30 years earlier.
For more information on DSO, including merchandise and CDs, log on to www.darkstarorchestra.net.