Dark Star Orchestra keeps the Grateful Dead alive via live performance
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Drummer Dino English walks a fine line in being a Deadhead and a member of the band Dark Star Orchestra.
As the former, he’s part of a contingent of lovers of the Grateful Dead whose devotion borders on the fanatical. When the band was active, those fans followed the Dead from town to town. They debate the finer points of the group’s various albums, canonize late bandleader Jerry Garcia and deconstruct specific concerts, song by song.
With the latter, he’s responsible for recreating those concerts — song for song. Getting it right, he told The Daily Times this week, is critical, to the fans and to him and his bandmates as well.
“I was a late bloomer as far as the Dead goes — I discovered them in college, around 1991, and caught about 20 shows by the actual Grateful Dead,” he said. “Of course, I’ve seen all of the offshoots throughout the years. It’s an interesting line to walk, as a fan and a performer, and I have to be conscious of that. I like to go hang with all of my fellow Deadheads, but I also have to be aware that I represent a lot to these people.”
Dark Star Orchestra began as a one-off show by founder John Kadlecik’s old band, Hairball Willie. Inspired by the 1990 edition of DeadBase, a compendium of Grateful Dead setlists, Kadlecik convinced the band to recreate a complete show. Fans were given the opportunity to guess the date, and those who got close received band merchandise. The show was a modest success, but the idea was shelved until several years later.
In 1997, Kadlecik was looking to form a new band, built around entire shows out of DeadBase. Dark Star Orchestra was formed, premiering in November of that year at a Chicago club. Four weeks later, the band was selling out shows. By the spring, they’d toured Colorado, secured standing gigs during the week and begun playing weekend shows around the Midwest.
“The shows tend to be more of an old-school psychedelic experience, but it’s not for the feint of heart, though,” English said. “It works better for the initiated rather than the uninitiated. We tend to do the more obscure stuff on the weekdays when you have hardcore fans coming out, rather than on the weekends, when you get more of the curious, what’s-this-Grateful-Dead-thing-all-about crowd.”
Dark Star Orchestra doesn’t just cover Grateful Dead songs — the band recreates entire concerts. A band archivist pulls from the vast amount of shows the Dead did over its long and storied career, and the band puts together a tour around playing different concerts in different cities each night — paying careful attention not to repeat a particular show they might have played in that city before.
“It takes a lot of planning,” English said. “We try to make it so we don’t play the same songs every night, to make it fresh for us and the fans who are traveling, and we’ll sit down with what we’ve done before in each town and try to schedule a show that’s different than what we’ve done there in the past.”
As big of a Grateful Dead fan as he was prior to joining DSO in 1999, English has found his appreciation for the pioneering psychedelic rock group’s music has grown by leaps and bounds. For example, he pointed out, he was always partial to the music from the 1980s-era Dead.
“I actually liked the mid-1980s and later-’80s a lot, but I’ve really grown to appreciate the late ’60s era,” he said. “We’ve started to do that a lot in the last couple of years. They were young kids back then, all in their 20s or even their teens at some point, and they played with such beautiful exuberance and reckless abandon. It’s completely off the hook as far as the energy goes.
“That’s a challenge to conjure up from night to night on those kinds of shows, but it’s nice. It’s definitely exhilarating to play. You can embrace your inner sloppiness as a musician, because the energy of that time period is what it was all about.”
Previously, English said, the lack of a utility player who could adequately capture the various contributions of Grateful Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan limited what Dark Star could do from the ’60s era. However, a new lead guitarist and DSO member Lisa MacKey learning to play harmonica caused the rest of the band to rise to the occasion, and now the depth of DSO material goes back to a time when the Grateful Dead were among the handful of bands changing the shape of popular music.
“After all this time listening to the Grateful Dead, it’s still refreshing to listen to,” English said. “I enjoy all kinds of music, and I listen to all sorts of stuff besides the Grateful Dead, but I never get tired of listening to it.”