By Michael Hamad
8:30 AM EST, December 5, 2012
Dark Star Orchestra
Dec. 7, 8 p.m., $25, Oakdale Theatre, 95 South Turnpike Road, Wallingford, (203) 265-1501, oakdale.com.
The 17-year anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death came and went in August. Still, it's a good time to be a Deadhead. You've got the Dead Archive folks churning out new, spiffed-up re-releases every time you find yourself with some spare scratch; the Europe '72 tour box set (60+ discs for $450!) sold out its initial 7,200-copy run (they're printing more). But even if you don't want to spring for all that plastic, you can still find incredible sounding digital copies of nearly any Dead show you'd want without having to rewind shitty-sounding cassettes of 4th-generation audience recordings like you used to.
If you want to capture the magic of being at a Dead show, you've got options. Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and even Donna Jean Godchaux are still fairly active with various bands — Furthur (Lesh and Weir), Ratdog (Weir), Phil Lesh and Friends (Lesh), 7 Walkers (Kreutzmann), the Mickey Hart Band (Hart), the Rhythm Devils (Kreutzmann and Hart), the Donna Jean Godchaux Band, and so on. (Other Dead-related groups and configurations have probably sprouted up even as I write this.) Of course, now (as always) there's probably a Dead tribute band setting up to play at a club in your immediate vicinity (caveat emptor).
The mother of all Dead tribute bands is the Dark Star Orchestra, a period-instrument juggernaut that meticulously recreates entire Dead shows from days gone by. They'll play the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on Dec. 7.
"We have this body of work [the Grateful Dead] that in my estimation will last through generations," DSO keyboard player/vocalist Rob Barraco told the Advocate in 2011. "It's wonderful to play with guys who have their own take... It's a shared love of the music, number one."
There's a workable formula to the DSO's approach. Rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton writes the show list for a particular tour, looking over what the Orchestra has played in a specific era, figuring out what they've done and where they still need to get to, without excessive repetition of songs (even though, as though working through them like jazz standards, repeating jam-worthy vehicles was part of the Dead's modus operandi). Every three or four shows, DSO members will agree upon what they call an "elective" set list, an artificially-constructed show designed to impact a particular audience or fill a gap in their coverage. Elective shows are also born out of onstage time limits; unlike the Dead, Dark Star usually doesn't have the time for a full show, "Drums > Space" and all.
Each Orchestra member, Barraco said, has exhaustively studied the Dead's music, although, he said "we don't sit down and analyze every note of a show." As the band's keyboard player, Barraco has had to home in on styles and sounds created by the band's seemingly endless succession of part- and full-time keyboard players: Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (pre-1973), Tom Constanten (1968-70), Keith Godchaux (1971-79), Brent Mydland (1979-90), Bruce Hornsby (1990-92) and Vince Welnick (1990-95).
"I have to pay particular attention to keyboard sounds," Barraco said. "I'm with six different sounds, vocal sounds, and for the guitar players one particular sound wouldn't be appropriate. Same thing with the drums ... So, we've done our homework and with each passing year it becomes easier and easier. There's a finite number of shows and we're pretty familiar with it at this point."
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