Orchestrating Dead history: Dark Star Orchestra presents a step back in time

If you like the Grateful Dead and had a lull in your studies, you probably caught the Dark Star Orchestra at their two-day stint at Higher Ground last week.On Monday, Dec. 1, Dark Star played the set list from the Oct. 30, 1972 Grateful Dead show at American University. The following night was an elective set list – many Dead songs interspersed with a few other artists, including Eric Clapton and The Band.Tuesday night’s crowd was a mix of collegestudents and older Deadheads. Some younger kids were there too, looking extremelycool as their mom dropped them off in the family minivan.Whatever their background, concertgoerswere there to experience what, to some critics, is the most accurate portrayal of the Dead in the immediate galaxy.”We take a traditional approach to the music,” Dino English, one of the band’s two drummers, said. “We’ll stick with the melody and the harmonic structure … the arrangements will be similar as far as tempo.”English, relaxed and youthful with past-the-eyebrows blondish hair, has been with the band since 1999 – a little over a year ago John Kadlecik (lead guitar, vocals), Lisa Mackey (vocals), and Kevin Rosen (bass guitar, vocals) first played at Martyrs’ in Chicago. By their fourth show, Dark Star had sold out the venue.”We want to hear the song intact how we feel it was written or how it was arranged at one particular time in Grateful Dead history,”English said. However, the band does not attempt to replicate the exact sound of any particular Grateful Dead concert.Mackey took her time to get in the groove, but by the time the band started playing “St. Stephen,” she was a dynamic, color-infused presence at the center of the stage.Slightly after midnight, Dino English and fellow drummer Rob Koritz embarked on an epic drum solo that captured the essence of what a deprived member of a younger generation imagined the Dead to sound like.On the bass guitar, Rosen, looking very focused at the left side of the stage, provided a constant strumming that formed the foundationof the group. The cohesion between the three guitarists – Rosen, Kadlecik, and Rob Eaton (rhythm guitar) – was remarkable,especially during an extended version of “Dancing in the Street.”Dark Star Orchestra is a mix of entertainmentand historical remembrance. Former Dead drummer Mickey Hart characterizedDark Star as “anthropological,” English said.”Essentially it’s almost a jazz style where you have a head, you jam in the middle, and then you play out the head again,” English said, referring to Dark Star’s stylisticapproach.”Knowing all these arrangements and having the perspective of playing all these Grateful Dead shows had been an education,”he said. “After all the study, it’s great to play the elective set lists.”Dark Star has played with some of the former members of the Grateful Dead, includingBob Weir and Donna Jean Godchaux.”It’s always a blast playing with Donna,” English said. “She’s such a sweetheart;we love that she comes around.” Currently, the band’s sound engineer is Dan Healy – renowned for his nearly 30 years of work with the Dead.Ten years of heavy touring has made members of the band rethink their often-grueling schedule.”We did 175 shows one year, which translates into 230 days on the road,” Englishsaid. “We’ve tried to scale back a little bit to get a more balanced life and avoid burnout … a better balance will only improvethe shows themselves.”Their goal is to eventually do around a hundred per year, which will leave more time for side projects. “Some of us are interested in making an album, not necessarilyto play live but just to do it,” English said.The Wikipedia entry for Dark Star Orchestralists them as a “Grateful Dead tributeband,” but English and other members tend to eschew that categorization.”Most of us don’t really view ourselves as a tribute band,” English said. “I see it as playing the music as how we like to hear it, which is in a more traditional style … we’re still bringing a lot to the music itself through our own personalities. You can’t get away from yourself, you can’t be somebody else, and we’re not trying to be somebody else.”A passionate incarnation of The Band’s tune “The Weight” finished out Tuesday’s show, highlighting Dark Star’s ability to delve deep into the work of other artists.”There’s plenty of room for us to leave our mark,” English said.