More than 25 years into their career and the members of famed Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra have become accustomed to life on the road. After all, we’re talking about a band that seems to embark on non-stop touring from coast to coast. So when the band finds itself with a rare two-week break from touring, the time seems to past rather swiftly.
“We had a little bit of time off, but nothing substantial,” keyboardist Rob Barraco said from, where else, the road.
Luckily being back on the road means this tour finds DSO returning for their yearly Thanksgiving Eve party at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, PA. on November 22. Along with the rest of their current tour dates, the band recently announced the 2024 iteration of their multi-day festival, Dark Star Jubilee, at Legend Valley in Ohio. The lineup is strong with DSO performing all three nights, bluegrass outfit Greensky Bluegrass, and Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country. Throughout the years, Barraco has always found himself performing in multiple acts during the weekend, and the 2024 edition will be no different.
“Aside from DSO, I’ll be playing with my bandmate (lead guitarist) Jeff Mattson,” he explained. “We have a band, with my son; it’s the Jeff Mattson Band. We usually play every year and we do a bunch of Jeff’s original music, and some other well-chosen covers. We don’t get a chance to play that often, so it’s always kind of a fun thing to do. This year, Dino (English, drums)) asked me if I would play with his solo band. He’s done a couple things over the years, but this is something totally different. I just got the music for it, and I haven’t even listened to it yet (laugh).”
Another notable name on the Jubilee list is Melvin Seals and JGB. Over the last few years, JGB has featured John Kadlecik on lead guitar and vocals. Kadlecik’s name is very familiar to the DSO family as he co-founded DSO and was a member for more than a decade. Recently, both bands have found themselves sharing the lineup at numerous festivals, and to many fans surprise, DSO has invited Kadlecik to join them on stage at several events.
“Any time we get together – John started this band, so he’s always welcome to come up and play with us,” Barraco said about reconnecting with Kadlecik. “Whatever misgivings there were years ago when he left the band have dissipated. We move on; you know how it goes. I love John’s playing and his singing. I play in another project with him, too. With Melvin, and Rob Eaton (rhythm guitar) and Skip (Vangelas, bass) from my band. John and I go back a ways, so it’s cool. And Melvin is a national treasure. There’s no one that plays like him…and how many years are we going to have Melvin? We gotta keep playing. It’s become a staple, and I love it.”
When DSO asked Mattson to replace Kadlecik and join full time, it was probably welcome news for Barraco as he and Mattson have a long-standing friendship dating back to their days in The Zen Tricksters. For DSO, the addition of Mattson also opened up the doors to an era that the band hardly touched throughout its history – late 1960’s shows. It’s an era that both Barraco and Mattson love, but it’s also an era that requires a lot of playing from the musicians.
“We just did a show in Milwaukee – a ’69 show – and it was the first time in the years we’ve been doing this, that I really felt that we got to the heart of that era,” Barraco enthused. “It’s so different than anything else; it’s a very savage kind of playing. I got off the stage, and I was like ‘holy shit. I’m beat.’ I love it man. The psychedelia from that era is hard to recreate, but the secret is Jeff. Because he lives and breathes that, you know? There’s not a lot of guitar players who can go there.”
While he does love the late 60’s material, Barraco’s favorite era of Grateful Dead to play is the early 70’s material where the Dead utilized only one drummer. It’s an era where the Dead had an almost new sound and their live performances took them to places the band had never explored.
“My favorite time period to play is from the Europe stuff up until probably, I love the Fall of ’72” he said. “There’s just some…one of my favorite shows is 9-27-72 at The Stanley Theater. The ‘Dark Star’ in that show, for me, is the one. Everyone’s got ‘their one’ and that’s the one for me. When we do that era, it’s where I’m going. Or where I’m hoping it’s going. For me, it’s the basis. Any of those single drummer years are just mind-bending because the band, with a single drummer, could go to different places. Phil (Lesh, Grateful Dead bassist) once said to me ‘the difference between playing with a single drummer and a double drummer is the difference between driving a Ferrari or a freight train.’ It’s a good assessment. You could turn corners in a Ferrari that you can’t in a freight train.”
Whenever DSO plays a single drummer show, they make sure both of their drummers – Dino English and Rob Koritz – both get the chance to join in on the fun by alternating which drummer will play that night.
“Yes, we do that to be fair to them because they both want to play single drum shows, he said with a laugh. “It’s just a good formula because they both do it really well and they each get a chance. Usually on a tour each of them will get a chance to do one of those shows, because we don’t do a lot of those single drummer shows.”
Whether or not the Penn’s Peak show will feature a single drummer is anyone’s guess, as DSO never reveals what kind of show they will be performing in advance. Regardless of what show is being performed, Barraco gushes over the venue and is quick to praise the way the venue and the band have built a wonderful working relationship over the last nearly 20 years.
“I love the room,” he said. “The room has a unique sound to it because of the way it’s constructed. It’s all wood and it’s very high. It almost looks like an inverted Noah’s Ark to me. It just has a sound to it. And the crowd that we get there – we usually sell it out – they’re into it from the very first note. I love that because that energy comes pouring onto the stage. Plus the staff at Penn’s Peak treats us great. They always feed us really well, and we have beautiful dressing rooms to hang in. It’s a paradise in the middle of nowhere – on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. And it always sells out, which blows my mind.”
While DSO has played more shows than the Grateful Dead, they haven’t played all the Grateful Dead shows. There have been some repeat performances of shows (May 8, 1977, for example), and a plethora of DSO elective set lists where the band chooses to perform Dead and Jerry Garcia Band material rather than recreate a show. However, there are two eras of the Dead’s music DSO has yet to touch, and it remains a mystery if they ever will.
“There are certain shows in the latter days of the Dead that we have not played,” he said. “Stuff from like ’94 and ’95…for us, it would mean a lot of work because there’s a lot of other music that none of us feel we really want to tackle. I’ve always thought that it’s inevitable that we’ll have to get to it. Then, of course, pre ’69 there’s a lot of material we haven’t covered. A lot of it is due to the fact that a lot of the shows were an early show and a late show so it’s harder to do those shows. What we have done it the past is we’ve taken the early show or late show from one of those shows and plug it in as a set. So there are still shows out there that we haven’t played yet. As a matter of fact, we just played a ’78 show that we hadn’t played, and I thought we covered all of them. Dino said ‘no, man. We haven’t played this show yet.’ And I said ‘great.’ One thing we have done, though. We’ve played more shows than the Grateful Dead. And we’re still doing it.”
Upcoming DSO tour dates:
NOV 21 Community Arts Center Williamsport PA
NOV 22 Penn’s Peak Jim Thorpe, PA
NOV 24 The Paramount Huntington NY
NOV 24 The Paramount Huntington NY
DEC 8 Pompano Beach Amphitheater Pompano Beach, FL
DEC 9 The St Augustine Amphitheatre St Augustine, FL
DEC 10 Jannus Live Saint Petersubrg, FL
DEC 28 Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre at the Count Basie Center Red Bank, NJ
DEC 29 Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre at the Count Basie Center Red Bank, NJ
DEC 30 The Capitol Theatre Port Chester, NY
DEC 31 The Capitol Theatre Port Chester, NY
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