Dark Star Orchestra

When is a Grateful Dead cover band not a Grateful Dead cover band? When it’s the ultimate Grateful Dead cover band, according to Dark Star Orchestra’s keyboardist, mastermind and manager, Scott Larned.

While it may sound like a prankster’s answer to a ridiculous riddle, there’s a serious theory at play here, and it’s working. DSO has quickly risen from a Chicago club favorite into a national touring phenomenon.

“A lot of original bands didn’t … want to play Dead covers because they didn’t want to get pigeonholed and stereotyped as a ‘Dead cover band,'” explained Larned, who cut his teeth with the Freddy Jones Band, among others.

“So, we just thought, ‘Well, let’s go the opposite way and we’ll make a Dead cover band and that’s all it will be!'”

Dark Star Orchestra sets itself apart from a plethora of Grateful Dead tribute outfits by not merely performing covers of the band’s material, but by completely re-creating its shows, right down to the legendary improvisational breaks and jams.

Fans don’t know, unless they were there for the original concert, what show DSO is re- creating on a given night. The band announces the date and location of the original gig at the end of the show.

A recent sold-out concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City was a duplication of the Grateful Dead’s October 19, 1989, performance at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, Jerry Garcia guitar noodles and all.

Larned acknowledges that what Dark Star Orchestra does (it never performs the same show twice) is not just a musical copycat act, there’s an element of theatre involved, too.

The Dead was famous for tinkering with set lists and songs, often midconcert. Some gigs featured two drummers; on other nights, there was only one. During a period in the 1970s, a woman, Donna Godchaux, toured with the band. And there’s the band’s famous “hot seat” at keyboard, which saw numerous personnel changes, sometimes due to tragic circumstances.

DSO re-creates the instrumentation, lighting, set design and personnel faithfully to the show being performed. Singer Lisa Mackey may take the stage in the Donna Godchaux “part” one night, and be absent the next. Larned may have a Hammond organ onstage for one show; for the next, it might be a piano.

Dark Star Orchestra

One might think that would mean a lot of time devoted to rehearsing for specific shows, but Larned shrugs off the suggestion. These guys are Deadheads from way back; their knowledge of Grateful Dead gigs and styles is organic.

“There’s been years of preparation, in terms of the fact that we all spent so much time going to see the Dead and collecting tapes and listening to them, that by now, it’s sort of second nature,” Larned said, admitting that the seven band members have easily seen more than 1,000 Grateful Dead concerts between them.

“We have little discussions depending on what era we’re playing on a given night. … So there are little minute changes the Dead made to their songs throughout the years and, having done this a little more than four years, we’re pretty familiar with where those changes occur and how to implement them in our own staging,” Larner said.

One problem with a band that performs only concert re-creations is a lack of recording opportunities. The original gigs are easily available from DeadBase, a Deadhead tape-trading network. Booking agent Jeff Laramie, of Madison, Wis.-based SRO Artists, acknowledges that not having records to tour behind presents its own set of challenges.

“Their merch sales helped them get their name identity out there with the T-shirts, hats, beer glasses, etc.,” Laramie told POLLSTAR. “But the merch table also serves as a point of sharing information with fans. They have their set lists there, they can talk about future shows, their fans pick up information about the setup on the stage, and who’s doing what, and share stories about the ‘days of the Dead’ or whatever. So it’s an information table as much as it is a merch table.”

According to Laramie, DSO played some 170 shows in 2000 and about 160 last year, but the venues have gotten larger as word about the band that “channels the Dead” has spread.

“We really developed them as a headliner, which has been both exciting and rewarding,” Laramie said. “Our strategy is not what you would have with a recording group

to put them on a big tour or something with other acts. They’ve really had to do their own thing.”

That’s especially true since a typical Dark Star Orchestra concert can run up to four hours.

“We just went out locating places that wanted to have a band that did this. We didn’t worry about the money. We worried about good, quality tours in cities and locations where we felt the music would do well,” Laramie explained.

“For some highlights, they recently sold out the Riviera in Chicago, they basically sold out the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, they’ve played a very full house at the Orpheum in Boston. …We haven’t booked them bigger than they are. They follow, logically, the progression of the interest in the band and it just all seems to be working.

“The sky’s the limit.”