Just two years after the Grateful Dead’s three-decade run ended in 1995, Dark Star Orchestra formed. The group became a Dead cover band with a twist — it decided to take set lists from Dead shows and play the songs from beginning to end.
“That concept has always had huge appeal to Dead fans,” keyboardist Rob Barracco said while calling from Washington, D.C. “They love that we go back to a certain date and to a certain city and play the songs the Dead played that show.”
Guitarist Rob Eaton decides on the set list. “Rob has an extensive database that covers every show that the Dark Star Orchestra has ever played,” Barracco said. “We try to play something completely different than what we played the last time in that city. It’s not easy but I assure you that when we come in we’ll have something different for you.”
Since forming, the hard-touring Dark Star Orchestra has played over 2,700 shows. That’s about 400 more concerts than the Grateful Dead played. However, DSO, which will perform Thursday at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, hasn’t played every Dead set list.
“We’ve repeated shows,” Barracco said. “Some shows you just want to go back to. Personally I could go back to 1972 as much as possible. I love that period. So yeah, we’re drawn to certain periods of the Dead’s music.”
Dark Star Orchestra even utilizes the same type of equipment that the Grateful Dead played on. “We use similar soundboard and monitors,” Barracco said. “We try to nail exactly what they did.”
Dead and Company is on tour and selling concert tickets as well as the Grateful Dead ever did. There are a number of Dead cover bands out there. However, the demand remains high for Dark Star Orchestra, which also is playing three shows at the Electric Factory, including a New Year’s date at the Philadelphia venue.
“People are into us and bands like us because the Dead is more than a band,” Barracco said. “The Dead is more than music. The Dead is a cultural phenomenon. Jerry Garcia said it best (to Deadheads) when he said ‘This is your last chance to join the circus.’ Dark Star Orchestra is much bigger than anyone in this group could have envisioned.
“When Dark Star Orchestra formed, I’m sure no one ever imagined that we would be playing before nearly 10,000 people during a three-night stand in Philly. But that just shows you how powerful the Dead is. (Grateful Dead bassist) Phil Lesh once told me that their music will be going strong 100 years from now and he’s right. There is something eternal about the Dead’s music.”
Lesh actually has played with the Dark Star Orchestra. “There’s nothing cooler than being validated by your heroes,” Barracco said. “Phil said that when he played with us that it was like putting on an old comfortable pair of shoes. It’s amazing that that the members of the Grateful Dead are down with what we do and then there is the response by the audience. They keep coming out to see us.”
Will the Dark Star Orchestra ever play every set the Grateful Dead ever performed? “I hope we’re able to do it,” Barracco said. “We’re on our way to it. But with the Dead it’s about the journey. I think we’ll get there eventually. We’re just enjoying the trip.
“I can’t believe Dark Star Orchestra has been around for 20 years. If we make it another 10 years, we’ll be around for as long as the Grateful Dead existed. That’s crazy. But we’re not thinking about that. We just want to focus on the dates we have now. The cool thing is that this has been as much fun as ever. Playing Dead songs never gets tired.”