Dark Star Orchestra
By Casey Lowdermilk
DSO, Rex, and Scott Larned’s Legacy
Rex Foundation Executive Director Sandy Sohcot recalls:
“I had a very special friendship with Scott Larned – we met at the Fillmore in July 2001, when I had just started at Rex and really didn’t know how we were going to do successful benefits. Scott warmly greeted me and said, ‘We’re with you all the way.’ He and I coined the nameÂ ‘Black Tie-Dye Ball’ while planning the March 2004 Chicago event – our first benefit out of the Bay Area since our renewal began, and since 1994 in terms of Grateful Dead Rex benefits.
“I think all of the members of DSO are terrific people, really caring about the music, community connection and spirit. It’s wonderful to work with them and experience such camaraderie. Now, it’s great to read their sentiments and see why our organizations like each other so much.”
A testament to the prophetic lyric
“The music never stopped.”
Not since the Grateful Dead’s final show at Soldier Field in 1995 has their musical legacy been so alive and dynamic. Phil & Friends, Ratdog, the Rhythm Devils and Kettle Joe’s Psychedelic Swamp Review all feature former members paying tribute to the Dead through unfettered creativity and improvisation.
The Dark Star Orchestra contribute to this legacy by capturing the spirit and magic of the Grateful Dead live experience, choosing a concert from the past and “playing the setlist song for song in the same arrangements used by the Dead members of that period.” It’s a concept that got its start because, as drummer Dino English recalls, “(Lead guitarist) John Kadlecik thought it would be a fun thing to do.” Since their first show in 1997, DSO have pursued this musical exploration over 1,300 concerts, showing an uncanny ability to tap into the very essence of a Grateful Dead live experience. In the process they’ve drawn an inclusive fanbase, from Deadheads who were there in the Haight to those who came along too late to have seen Jerry.
DSO have also been extremely generous in helping the Rex Foundation. They first connected through the enthusiastic support and effort of Scott Larned, founding member and former keyboardist of DSO. Tragically, Scott passed away in April 2005 from a heart attack while on the road with the band, but the relationship between DSO and Rex continues to grow, and his legacy and devoted friendship will not be forgotten.
In 2002, DSO performed their first Rex Foundation Benefit Concert at the Warfield in San Francisco. Since then, they’ve played Rex benefits in Chicago, their home town, and Washington D.C. These benefits play an integral role in helping Rex foster community through music, joy and creative energy. On September 23rd of this year, DSO continue the tradition with a Rex Foundation Benefit Concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, Colorado.
I recently talked with DSO rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton and drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz about a variety of topics, including what the Rex Foundation means to them, their passion for the music, and what it’s like to be a Deadhead on the other side of the stage.
Rex: Why is it important for DSO to be involved with the Rex Foundation?
Koritz: For so many reasons, but first and foremost, it’s actually an honor. With us out there, for lack of a better term, perpetuating the legacy of the Grateful Dead, it makes perfect sense for us to be working with the Rex Foundation.
Back in April, I went to see the Rhythm Devils in New York City. I met Mickey, introduced myself, and told him that I played his role in the Dark Star Orchestra. And he said, “Before I even go any further, I want to thank you guys for all the work you’re doing with the Rex Foundation.” It couldn’t have been any cooler than that – what a great way for a conversation to start.
Then we feel really proud that we have managed to make an impact and help the Rex as much as we’ve been able to.
Rex: How do you choose what setlist to play?
Koritz: Rob Eaton chooses the shows for us now; Scott used to do it.
We all decided a long time ago, way back when the band started, that if everybody tried to put in their opinion we’d never agree on a show. We’ve always left it to one person. Scott did a real good job, and Rob does a fantastic job.
We base it on a lot of different things – how big the stage is definitely comes into play. After that, our main priority is not to redo an era in a city next time we’re there, so that every time we visit a city they get a different flavor.
After that, we try not to repeat songs from the last time we were there, and we try not to repeat any songs that we played the night before. Quite a bit goes into the formula actually.
Rex: What period of the Grateful Dead do you enjoy playing the most?
English: I enjoy playing later ’70s up to mid to later ’80s, mostly because of song selection and the way the setlists flow.
Eaton: Personally I love the ’72-’74 time period. But to be honest, I enjoy it all. It’s a privilege to be able to play this music, and I take it very seriously!
Koritz: ’84 to ’89 is what I enjoy playing the most. That’s just because in my mind the drummers were playing some really interesting stuff. But I like it all; there are some eras I like to listen to more than I like to play them, and vice versa.
Rex: Sometimes you also choose to perform original setlists. Why?
English: We do it for ourselves, and for the members of the audience who want to see what we can do with this music without the guidelines of “recreating” a show (which apparently is a large percentage).
I look at playing the actual shows as a kind of schooling on history so we don’t forget the past. We then use that as a springboard into the future by approaching songs in new ways.
I have to say I have seen some mediocre results from great musicians trying to play this music (who) aren’t familiar enough with it to know where it’s coming from or what its purpose is.
Eaton: Because it’s really the truest form of Grateful Dead. It also gives us a chance to step on stage without a setlist and just let things go wherever it leads us!
We also have a repertoire larger than the Dead had at any given time. We can string songs together they were never able to do, which makes it very interesting and exciting.
Rex: In response to one of my DSO reviews for jambands.com, one disgruntled yet loyal Grateful Dead fan wrote that DSO have no characteristics of what the Dead were all about: spontaneity, group mind, and originality. What’s your response to this critique?
English: First of all, I can understand certain disgruntled Grateful Dead fans not liking what we do conceptually. After all, Grateful Dead music is hallowed ground for most Deadheads. It’s a hard concept for some, to get past the fact that the members of the original band aren’t the only people qualified to play this music. They think that somehow the magic applied with those individuals and no one else.
The Grateful Dead obviously were something very special that can never be duplicated, but I can tell you the magic is still alive and out there. It will be around long after the original members of the Grateful Dead, as well as the current members of DSO or Phil & Friends or Ratdog, are all gone. It is a freight train headed into the future and no disgruntled Grateful Dead fan can stop it. The music will survive.
As far as DSO lacking in spontaneity, I think this critique is way off. There is no way to not have spontaneity with this music. The Grateful Dead musical vocabulary is large enough to say the same things musically in many different ways. Our performances of the songs take on some of the nuances and characteristics of a given era, but each performance is different because of the spontaneity inherent within the music.
As far as the group mind, I have been witness to it too many times and had countless testimonials from fans in the audience who experience it, so I know it’s there – maybe not all the time, but that’s what makes it special. Deadheads are particular, scrutinizing people when it comes to their music. They know crap when they see it. They know that special feeling when it is present as well.
Eaton: The thing that makes this music is the improvisation. Everything is built around that. Some people actually think we play note-for-note recreations of past Dead shows, which is as far from the truth as possible. Firstly, it would take a lifetime to learn one show note for note, much less thousands. But the bigger question is, why? It goes against everything this music was based on. All we really do is play the music the only way we know how. We don’t try to act out parts; we simply just play the music.
It’s not about converting old Deadheads to liking what we do; it’s about the community and bringing new folks into the scene. The music was always the reason for the gathering, but it’s what happens when all that positive energy gets together that makes it special.
Rex: It could be said that DSO are in a new era after the passing of Scott Larned. How did his death affect you collectively as a band?
English: Scott’s death affected all of us in more ways than we even realize right now.
In more apparent ways, Scott was an organizer, a sharp mind, a quick wit and an ambassador for the band. Each member of the band has had to pick up some slack to compensate for his tireless efforts in keeping the band running. He gave me a shot at being in this band, and I am eternally grateful for that.
Rex: Who’s the DSO keyboardist now?
English: Basically our keyboardists are Rob Barraco and Dan Klepinger.
Barraco and Dan are both great players, and each has a different kind of strength. At this point we have kind of left the door open for Barraco to come play with us when he’s not playing with Phil because he is such an outstanding musician.
Dan seems to fit traditionally into the music, more especially with the Brent-era stuff. When Barraco plays with us he almost carves out a more original sound, which a lot of people enjoy and some see as our future direction. Others want the more traditional sound that Dan brings to the table. I say let’s give it all to them.
Rex: You’re all clearly ultimate fans of the Grateful Dead. So what’s it like to be on the other side of the music, providing that meaningful release for thousands of fans?
Koritz: As selfish as this might sound, I think about providing that meaningful release to myself first. I love the fact that the fans are there, but as far as a creative outlet goes, I’m up there for my bandmates and me first. If we’re not doing it for ourselves, and really coming from the heart, it’s not going to transfer over to fans anyway.
Having said that, the fans definitely play a part in the equation of making it happen. There’s nothing better than looking out into the crowd and seeing the older-school Deadheads right alongside these younger kids. They all know the words and are getting their groove on; it’s a great feeling to be on the other side.
Rex: It’s obvious that all the members of DSO have studied the various playing styles of Grateful Dead members. What’s that process like, and what are some characteristics you discovered that are interesting?
English: To begin with, I found that my personal approach to playing the drums is close to Bill’s. I love jazz drumming, syncopation, getting “outside” musically, and helping the music flow. I also love just laying down a beat so that a room full of people can move. Stylistically, it wasn’t that far of a stretch for me. I really do love the way Bill plays, and what I try to tap into is his nonstop creativity and how he plays off the others in the band.
Eaton: I’ve never tried to be anything but myself. I was turned onto the Dead at a very early age and started playing guitar; I was inspired to play guitar because of what I heard. I can’t help it that my teacher and inspiration for picking up the guitar in the first place was Weir! I have that style because I don’t know any differently.
Koritz: I got into the Grateful Dead in 1987, which was my senior year in high school. For a lot of different reasons I got into it, but one of them definitely was because of this devil drumming style, this amazing drummer. I really was captured by both of them, but especially captured by Mickey’s playing at the time.
The process of studying it was just doing it, from being a musician and a fan. That’s really how it worked for all of us in the band. We were all just such big fans of the guys that the study was done out of pure enjoyment, just listening to the music, listening to what he was doing, hearing how it evolved over the years and how each individual’s playing style evolved over the course of time.
As far as what I take it from, Mickey comes from a rudimentary school – that real regimented marching style. Then he got into researching all these rhythms from throughout the world and these different styles of playing. You take that and you meld it with what he had grown up with, and that’s where his style comes from. For me, that kind of made sense; I grew up playing in the marching bands and listened to as much world music as I could. It really just fell into place naturally for me.
Rex: One of the highlights of shows for many fans is the freeform, improvisational “Drums.” How do you approach one of these segments in your performances?
Koritz: Dino and I have been playing drums together for over 12 years now; we were in a band together for five years before we joined Dark Star. We have a lot of history playing together and we know each other’s playing really, really well.
When it comes to the drums solo, some nights we’ll talk about what we’re going to try to do and set up a framework for ourselves. Other nights we just go back there and we have no idea what’s going to happen. Other nights, we’ll do what Mickey and Billy used to do, where they’d give each other a theme and then go with it. Granted, we probably don’t do that nearly as much as they did. From the way that I understand it, that was pretty much how they set up a lot of their “Drums”; they looked at each other and went “Fire engine roaring down the street!” or “California earthquake!”
Part of it, when we’re doing actual Dead shows, is going to be based on what they might have done. If we’re doing something from the ’70s or the early ’80s, we’re not going to have any electronics or MIDI or loops.
We go out there, and sometimes it works and we come offstage and say, “That was really good.” Sometime it doesn’t; we come off and look at each other and go “Ugghhh.” There’s good ones and bad ones. It can’t be great every night because it’s totally improvised, but you go for it and hope for the best.
Rex: On September 23rd, Dark Star Orchestra will be playing a benefit concert for the Rex Foundation at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver. DSO has already helped the Rex build charitable communities in Chicago, Washington D.C. and San Francisco. What have these past benefits been like for the band?
Koritz: A lot of the time we don’t get to experience firsthand where the money ends up going to, who the Rex chooses. But, for example, in Washington D.C., part of it was going to a youth music program, and before the show, during the cocktail hour, they had a jazz trio from the youth music program playing. That was great, to get to see them.
The one in Chicago, we’d had a crewmember named Glenn Carrier, who used to work for the Grateful Dead, who passed away, and some proceeds from that one went to help his family. The one we did in D.C., some proceeds went to help Scott’s daughter. But more importantly, we know the Rex Foundation has a plethora of great recipients out there, and we’re just happy to be able to contribute and help the Rex put money in their hands.
Rex: Last words?
Koritz: It’s important for people to know how honored we are that the Rex chooses to continue to work with us and we can continue to work with them. It’s something we’re really proud of, to be involved with the Rex Foundation.
The inaugural Black Tie-Dye Ball, March 6, 2004 at the Park West Theatre in Chicago, is available on CD, with proceeds benefiting Rex.
Two DSO performances are available in special live recordings produced at ArSeaEm Recordings by Grateful Dead producer and engineer Bob Matthews:
Dark Star Orchestra: Live at the Fillmore (2 DVDs, 2 CDs), recorded May 8, 2004 at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, features DSO’s recreation of a 5/5/77 concert in New Haven.
Grateful Fest Live 6 (4 CDs), recorded Friday, August 19, 2006 at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park, features DSO revisiting 8/6/74, as well as performances by Cornmeal and David Gans.
Find these Rex benefit CDs here.
DSO shows are taper-friendly. Find downloadable recordings, streaming audio, fellow tapers and more at darkstarjam