Dark Star Orchestra: Not Fade Away
Rob Eaton is buried in spreadsheets. It’s a spring afternoon and, as he does before each leg of Dark Star Orchestra’s never-ending tour, the rhythm guitarist is sitting quietly in his Colorado home, sifting through setlist databases and rifling through heaps of statistics while plotting out the next round of the band’s famous Grateful Dead recreations.
He chooses the setlists carefully, always aware of their placement in both the Grateful Dead catalog and the still-evolving story of Dark Star Orchestra. Then, Eaton distills the data into a 20-page booklet, which is distributed to the band and crew at the outset of every tour. The pages are filled with detailed venue notes, the evening’s running order and a Grateful Dead Almanac’s worth of auxiliary information culled from Dark Star Orchestra’s 20-plus- year touring history. It aims to minimize song repeats and assure musical diversity from tour to tour. Plus, to keep fans on their toes, Eaton tosses in occasional “elective days” where they craft original setlists.
“I have to give him kudos because it’s a really difficult, arduous task that he’s taken on,” keyboardist Rob Barraco says of Eaton’s ongoing research project. “He has a database that has every show DSO has ever played, in every single town we’ve ever played.”
Eaton’s mathematical mind and impressively trained ear are key parts of DSO’s special sauce. He can narrow a Dead show down to the year, venue and, even sometimes, an exact date simply by hearing a sliver of a single show. A voracious fan of the Dead since he first heard Europe ‘72 as a preteen, Eaton gained a deep knowledge of the band through his years as a taper and work restoring the old “Betty Board” reel-to- reel recordings with his friend, famed Dead archivist Dick Latvala.
And while the band’s official origins date back to 1997, the current lineup is, in many ways, DSO 2.0, boasting second-generation additions like Eaton, Barraco and lead guitarist Jeff Mattson. It took time, Eaton recalls, for him to officially join the band. In the late-‘90s and early aughts, he was working as a successful recording engineer, sitting in with Dark Star on occasion, but spending most of his time behind the boards for acts like Jimmy Buffett and Pat Metheny. Eventually, though— despite three Grammy awards on his mantle—he became restless. By 2001, he decided to “semi-retire” from the recording industry, move to Colorado and play with DSO full time.
“Change is hard and change is inconvenient, but usually change is positive—and it was for me,” Eaton says. “I was working with Ricky Martin in Florida and hating every minute of it. It’s just a matter of taking the step forward and not looking backward, and that’s what I did. And I’m very happy with my decision and I’m very happy with living check-to-check like everybody else does. My conscious and my soul are clean.”
Dark Star Orchestra’s current roster is filled with cosmic connections. Mattson, Barraco and Eaton, in particular, have deep ties and find it ironic that they now play in the same band. For years, the three musicians performed in rival Grateful Dead tribute acts on Long Island, competing for gigs and critiquing each other’s approach to the music. Mattson was in a band called the Volunteers, Barraco was in a band called Timberwolf, and Eaton and bassist Skip Vangelas, who joined DSO in 2013, were in a band called Border Legion. In time, the Volunteers and Timberwolf dissolved into Wetlands regulars The Zen Tricksters and, as Mattson recalls, they ran in the same circles as Border Legion for years, oftentimes playing the same venue just days apart.
“It was interesting because we had a different approach at the time,” Mattson remembers. “[Border Legion] were more refined and they probably had better vocal harmonies. We were a little rawer and more energetic, more like an early Dead approach—savage. We always laugh because we went to see [Border Legion] play and, in their dressing room, they were playing jazz and reading James Joyce.”
In 1999, Phil Lesh asked Mattson and Barraco to perform as part of an early version of his ever-rotating Phil Lesh & Friends ensemble; Barraco ended up continuing on in Lesh’s more permanent Quintet. After original keyboardist/DSO co-founder Scott Larned died unexpectedly in 2005, Barraco signed on and, despite his continued association with Lesh and his own music, has remained a vital part of the group ever since. Meanwhile, Mattson continued on with Zen Tricksters, writing original material, twisting Dead covers in new ways and even working closely with Donna Jean Godchaux. When founding Dark Star Orchestra singer/ guitarist John Kadlecik left the group to join Furthur, Mattson entered the fold in 2010.
“The four guys in the front— meaning myself and Robby and Skip Vangelas and Barraco— we are all roughly the same age,” Mattson explains. “We’re all from that same era. We’ve lived through the same times, as far as the Grateful Dead goes, and we have a lot of the same values.”
Like the Grateful Dead, Dark Star Orchestra relies on a kind of unspoken language; it’s about anticipating what your bandmate will play before they play it. “We just have a natural musical conversation between us,” Mattson continues. “We listen to each other, and I’ve heard from people in the audience that they can feel it too; there’s this great back and forth, particularly in the jams.” “We’re as good as we’ve ever been,” Eaton adds. “I’m growing as a musician. I feel like I’m playing less, which I think is good. And there’s more room. On any particular night, we’re approaching it the way we’re supposed to be. We’re not bringing any negativity to the stage—there’s no angst and it’s very positive.”
DSO at the sold-out Palace Theatre in Albany, NY, 11/11/17 (Dave DeCrescente)
The members of Dark Star Orchestra are adamant that their Grateful Dead recreations aren’t note-for-note. For example, during their first-ever Red Rocks show this summer, they will play the Dead’s 7/8/78 show in its entirety exactly 40 years after its original date. While the songs may be the same, the solos aren’t. “When we start to play a show, we approach it the same way as if we had no idea what we’re gonna play,” Barraco says. “And we improvise the entire thing. So, if you were to compare the two shows A-to-B, they would be so different. That’s what our fans really dig. They know they can come to a show and get taken on a journey because this is a journey we’re taking ourselves on.”
And that style of single- minded jamming was hard fought. Like any band, it took some time for DSO to find their current level of synchronicity. Barraco recalls having to unlearn certain improv styles he picked up during his time in Lesh’s steady early-‘00s ensemble. While the bassist would encourage aggressive, in-your-face jamming, Dark Star Orchestra demanded a more careful ear.
“I tamed myself down and that discipline really helped me as a player to realize that when you’re playing with other people, a lot of times you really have to try to fit into [the greater sound],” Barraco adds. “You can’t always dominate the conversation.”
Lesh, who has played with the band a number of times, reentered Dark Star Orchestra’s orbit in April 2018, at Live Oak, Fla.’s Wanee Festival. DSO was headlining the event’s first night, with two sets on the main stage, and Lesh’s Terrapin Family Band was scheduled for the following evening. After DSO played a so-so set one (“I wasn’t really thrilled,” Mattson says self-deprecatingly), the band hit their stride in the second half, really pushing themselves to serve up a stellar version of “The Other One.” After the show, they got word that Lesh was standing side stage for set two; during “The Other One,” the Grateful Dead bassist was grinning from ear to ear. “We live for those moments where it just becomes effortless,” Mattson says of that evening. “It’s like a train rolling on the tracks.”
If Dark Star Orchestra’s story has a few constant themes, then they are community and family. Eaton, Barraco, Mattson, Vangelas, percussionists Dino English and Rob Koritz, and vocalist Lisa Mackey remain direct ties to the classic Grateful Dead era and ethos. The band hosts their own festival every summer, the Dark Star Jubilee; they make a point of creating a wholesome atmosphere, rooting out what Eaton describes as the “sour element” that often coalesces at larger-scale events. “We don’t have ATM machines, we don’t sell warm beer for $8.00. It’s a BYOB festival and you can walk right up to the stage with your cooler and a chair and have a good time,” he explains. “We have a big family section. We have kid parades and drum circles, and we try to make it as family-friendly as we can.”
As for the skeptics, Eaton is always down to prove a pessimist wrong. “With any band—I don’t care if it’s JRAD or us or Dead & Company— there are always gonna be the detractors who can’t stand even the thought of what you’re doing: ‘No one should play this music; Jerry’s gone, so go do something else.’” he says. “It’s fun when someone brings one of those people to a show, and they do quite often. They go for the first time and are like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t come for the last 15 years!’ And I think that’s cool. But what I like the best, especially with our crowd, is that we probably have at least three, sometimes four, generations of people there. We’ll have everything from a mother with a young child in her arms, to a grandma in her 80s and everybody in between. Seeing the young kids in the front row singing all the lyrics with their T-shirts on—that was me. That’s how I was back in the day and they’re the ones that are gonna teach the next generation.”
And that chemistry is reflected onstage, too. “It’s very intimate,” Barraco says wistfully of their sibling-like bond. “You don’t really get to do this at the level we do, unless you are a solid family. And we are. We travel on a bus, we play hundreds and thousands of shows together, and we know the language so well. One guy will be playing a phrase and the other guy will answer the phrase, and maybe somebody else will twist their way around that phrase—and it just keeps getting passed. It’s like lightning on the stage— balls of lightning going from person to person. It’s a very beautiful process. And just like the Dead, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s never terrible. It always has purpose; it’s always going somewhere.”
There is no denying that the members of Dark Star Orchestra are near the center of the current, post-Fare Thee Well Dead renaissance. DSO’s audience is getting younger, and whether it’s escapism or pure, unadulterated fun, more people are embracing the Dead songbook. Between Dead & Company, the Terrapin Family Band, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Dark Star Orchestra and countless others, on any given night in America, there’s probably a group of musicians tearing into “Bertha,” or breathing life into “Morning Dew.” “Like Jerry said in that one interview, ‘It’s your last chance to join the circus,’” Barraco says with a grin.
“This particular genre, this particular community that the Grateful Dead helped create, is pretty special,” Eaton says. “It’s gone through its ups and downs, and it’s gone through it’s nitrous- mafia people and the drug scene. But, at the end of the day, with Dead & Company and JRAD, we all play the music differently, we all bring something different to the scene. JRAD’s interpretation of the Grateful Dead’s music and our interpretation couldn’t be more opposite of each other. They’re both valid and they both bring people in and that’s positive. Same with Dead & Company—John Mayer’s brought in a fan base that never would have listened to the Grateful Dead until he started playing with them. I think all of it is positive. There’s not one negative thing.”
This article originally appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.