By Ryan Smith
For Meadville Tribune's BRAVO!
Dark Star Orchestra has been raising the Dead for the past decade.
Having performed nearly 1,500 shows at top venues and music festivals around the world, DSO brings to its devoted audiences an authentic and masterful song-for-song experience using entire shows from the Grateful Dead’s 30 years of touring. In short, DSO plays classic Dead shows “in the same way that an orchestra interprets music of classical composers,” according to the band’s Web site (at www.darkstarorchestra.net).
Bravo! recently caught up with DSO keyboardist/vocalist Rob Barraco as the band was on its way — with an unscheduled stop due to some bus troubles — to that night’s gig at the Barrymore Theater in Madison, Wis. “We’re very late,” Barraco said matter-of-factly between bites of multi-grain chips.
Barraco first joined Dark Star Orchestra in 2005 following the death of former keyboardist Scott Larned. He’s also worked with The Dead (the post-Jerry Garcia incarnation of the Grateful Dead that reunited in 2002-03); extensively and continously with Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band Phil Lesh and Friends; and most recently on his new solo album (“When We All Come Home”) with Robert Hunter, the legendary lyricist best known for his collaborative songwriting work with Garcia and the Dead.
Here’s what Barraco, waylaid in Wisconsin, had to say about what it’s been like playing in the band(s):
Q: Describe a ‘typical’ crowd at a DSO show.
A: “We get a mix of kids from 16 to people in their 60s. We have a lot of the older Deadheads, and a lot of the kids who never got a chance” to see the Grateful Dead live. Altogether, “it’s people who are looking for this experience, and they’re not going to get it anywhere else.”
Q: What do you find to be the most challenging Dead material to play?
A: “Personally, I think it’s the later years when things got a lot more electric.” The Dead’s older material “is a lot of instrumentation, but more basic musically.”
Q: Do you have a favorite Dead era?
A: “No doubt about it — ’72. We just did a ’72 show the other night. It was so slamming, so much room to move ... (and) the jams are really long and spacey. But there’s great stuff in all the eras.”
Q: What’s your all-around favorite Dead stuff?
A: “I tend to be a big fan of the jam stuff — ‘Dark Star,’ ‘The Other One,’ ‘Bird Song,’ and I love the Jerry (Garcia) ballads. ... I like it all, so to be asked about a ‘favorite song’ is a ridiculous question. I can’t answer it.”
Q: What’s it been like working with Phil Lesh, The Dead, Robert Hunter and other heavy hitters in the world of jam-based music?
A: “My first experience was working with Phil (Lesh and Friends). One thing I really admired about him was that he had this vast repertoire to work with, but he didn’t want it to sound like the Dead.” During that time, “I approached (Robert Hunter) about writing, and he was totally down with it.”
Working with The Dead, “we kinda had to stick to the gameplan a lot more.”
Q: Do you consider DSO a tribute/cover band?
A: “We’re trying to re-create the Grateful Dead experience. We have a blueprint, but we’re living in those living in those songs. We’re still improvising and trying to get that X-factor — that’s the reason we all went to the Dead shows to start off with. ... If we were a ‘cover’ band, we’d probably play the (album-recorded) stuff note for note. With the (live) Dead, can you imagine that?”
Q: What’s in the immediate future for DSO?
A: After this stretch of the tour, “we head down the coast (for the sixth annual Langerado Music Festival) out in the Everglades. ... Then it’s off to Amsterdam for the Jam in the Dam” in March.
Ryan Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.