Chicago’s Dark Star Orchestra has the Grateful Dead covered |

Chicago’s Dark Star Orchestra has the Grateful Dead covered

Stewart Oksenhorn

Even long before the Grateful Dead disbanded, cover bands specializing in the music of the Dead were packing nightclubs from coast to coast. And since the death of singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia and the subsequent demise of the Dead, Dead cover bands have become more popular still.

But nobody has covered the Dead with the precision, detail and outright obsessiveness of the Chicago-based Dark Star Orchestra.

When Dark Star Orchestra makes its Aspen debut, with shows tonight, Wednesday, and tomorrow at the Double Diamond, Deadheads might be excused for their flashbacks.

Dark Star Orchestra’s trick is to pick a specific show from the days of the Dead – say, a 1977 concert from Cornell University’s Barton Hall, or a Madison Square Garden gig from 1989 – and play the show in its entirety. And the precision doesn’t end with playing a song-for-song recreation of a Dead show. The six-member band duplicates the sound and style of the specific Dead period they happen to be playing.

“We’ve seen our share of Dead cover bands,” said keyboardist Scott Larned, who had performed in more typical Dead cover bands himself, before creating Dark Star Orchestra. “The difference between us and them is, with most Dead cover bands, they put their own spin on what they’re doing. They’ll have four people in the band, or eight people. They’ll do their own originals, or other cover songs.

“What we’re trying to do is recreate the Dead as close as possible. We don’t want a ’74 `Eyes of the World’ to sound like an ’87 `Eyes.’ We wanted no pretense of doing originals, or giving it our own sound.”

To put the final authentic stamp on the music, the Dark Star Orchestra adapts its instrumentation – and even its membership – for the specific night’s show. For a ’90s show, lead guitarist John Kadlecik pulls out the MIDI guitar synthesizer setup used by Garcia in the later days; for the occasional show plucked from the ’70s, the band even adds vocalist Lisa Mackey to sing the female part originally supplied by Donna Jean Godchaux

Dark Star Orchestra does not announce which Dead show it has chosen for a particular performance, keeping alive the element of suspense – “What are they gonna play?” that accompanied actual Dead concerts. And just as Deadheads played the guessing game for each night’s set list, fans of Dark Star Orchestra keep their ears and eyes open to figure out exactly what show they are witnessing.

“I’m the keyboard player, so I’m the giveaway,” said Larned, who must cover three eras of Dead keyboardists – the ’70s era of Keith Godchaux, the ’80s days of Brent Mydland, and the ’90s version with Vince Welnick. “If it’s a Brent show, I have the Hammond organ; if it’s a grand piano and with no microphone, then it’s a Keith show.” (The band does not play shows from the Pigpen era of the ’60s and early ’70s, or from the two-keyboard days of the early ’90s, when Bruce Hornsby frequently sat in with the band.)

Dark Star Orchestra, which has been together for 18 months, is in the midst of its first Colorado tour, and the results have been impressive. The band has sold out houses from Vail to Denver for all of the first seven dates of the tour. And Larned, for one, is not surprised that the Dead’s music remains so popular, even nearly four years after the band stopped playing.

“It’s some of the best American songs out there,” said Larned, noting that Dark Star Orchestra has played some 150 gigs without repeating a show. “And the music speaks for itself. Beethoven is played hundreds of years after he died.

“Doing these songs, we’ve fallen in love with songs we never thought much of before. `Candyman,’ I always thought of as a bathroom break. But after dissecting and learning the songs, it calls your attention to the phrasing and the beauty of the words and the songs.”

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