A (sorta) tribute to the Dead

From left, Dino English, Rob Barraco, Kevin Rosen, Lisa McKay, Rob Koritz, Stu Allen and Rob Eaton.
From left, Dino English, Rob Barraco, Kevin Rosen, Lisa McKay, Rob Koritz, Stu Allen and Rob Eaton. DARK STAR ORCHESTRA

Dark Star Orchestra, playing Sunday in Olympia, has spent a dozen years playing the songs of the Grateful Dead.

In fact, the band is known for playing exact set lists from many of the Dead’s shows, although shows sometimes use original lists, too.

How is it, then, that the musicians of Dark Star insist that it is not a cover band, not even a tribute band?

“The Grateful Dead’s music, very similar to jazz music, is based on improv,” said Rob Eaton, who sings and plays guitar with Dark Star. “You can’t copy improv.

“If Coltrane was playing a Miles Davis track, he’s not covering Miles Davis. He’s playing that music in his own way, and that’s what we’re doing with the Grateful Dead’s music.”

But the band prides itself on capturing the spirit of the Dead – and it’s played more than 1,700 shows.

Critics and collaborators of the legendary band attest to what a long, strange and faithful trip it’s been.

“Dark Star Orchestra often sounds more like The Dead than The Dead sometimes did,” a Chicago Tribune critic wrote, while The Washington Post called the orchestra “a cover band for people who don’t like cover bands.”

Donna Jean Godchaux, a singer with the Grateful Dead and a frequent guest with Dark Star, puts it this way: “Playing with Dark Star Orchestra is something that feels just exactly like it felt when I was playing with the Grateful Dead.”

One testament to the orchestra’s credibility: Dark Star lead guitarist John Kadlecik (playing the role of Dead founder Jerry Garcia) recently left the band — to join Furthur, the current project of Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.

The band auditioned Jeff Mattson on a recent tour, and this time out is giving a test run to Stu Allen of the JGB Band, headed by Garcia’s longtime friend and musical collaborator Melvin Seals.

If the idea is to capture the spirit of the band, not to be an exact copy, why use the set lists?

It started as a purely practical matter, said Eaton, who decides which set list to use for shows.

“It was originally a way not to argue about what to play,” he said. “There was no discussion about what songs to play or who was going to play what song.”

These days, while the band does sometimes create its own set lists – which gives them choices of songs that weren’t played often – choosing from among the original Dead lists has become quite a job. Eaton tries to ensure a lot of variety, so that fans in a particular city will see quite a different show on subsequent stops.

“Most of the set lists we do go from ’71 to ’95,” he said. “If it was an early show of 45 minutes, it’s not practical. We stick to when they started doing longer shows.”

His own personal favorite era is 1972-74, he said, which is when he fell in love with the Dead. The record “Europe ’72” inspired him as a boy to learn the guitar.

“I’d come home from school and play to the record,” he said. “I wore through three copies in probably six months. It moved me.”

But the live shows were where the real magic happened, he said.

“There was the energy that was created. It was better than any drug you could ever get. I went to as many shows as I could, because I didn’t want to miss that magic.”

Does Dark Star capture that spirit? Sometimes, said Eaton – and it was the same way for the Dead.

“There are moments when it happens and moments when it doesn’t happen,” he said. “You can’t manufacture it. When there’s this sort of synergy between the crowd and the band, this energy happens.

“The goal is to reach those heights.”