Dark Star Orchestra revives the Grateful Dead

By Larissa Gula

Dark Star Orchestra

Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead

Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.

510 East 10th… Dark Star Orchestra

Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead

Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.

510 East 10th Ave, Munhall, Pa.


Tickets: $25-30

Fans, rejoice: The Grateful Dead has been reborn.

At least, that’s the goal of bands like Dark Star Orchestra, which remake and re-enact the original eclectic rock band’s material every night.

Having performed more than 1,600 shows since 1997, DSO makes a point of recreating an entire Grateful Dead concert as faithfully as it can. Although the lineup changes, the band currently features seven members, including keyboardist and vocalist Rob Barraco, who was influenced by the Dead’s sound at an early age.

“For me as a teenager, [The Grateful Dead] was the pinnacle of music,” Barraco said. “No other rock band played with this level of sophistication and had this songwriting talent and lyrical ability to answer to every man. For me, that was important.”

Barraco, who said he was born with music in his “veins,” never wanted any other career but music. He performed with other tribute bands and even with Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh earlier in his career.

The manager for DSO asked if Barraco could step in when its then-keyboardist passed away.

“I did a tour, and I had so much fun and so much respect for these guys because they viewed the music the same as I,” Barraco said. “I asked if I could do it again. It was off and on for a few years, and I finally realized this is really what I want to do.”

Barraco became a full-time DSO member and soon mastered the Dead’s distinctive style.

“This music demands to be improvised,” he said. “We don’t copy. It would be impossible to do so. The Grateful Dead played so many live shows it would take years to recreate their work correctly.”

From the beginning, the cover band grew fast. It played once a week, and its crowd doubled every time. The Internet only fueled the growth, allowing the band to, in Barraco’s words, “share a journey with the audience.”

“We want to create the magic, too,” he said. “Younger kids who never got the chance to see the Dead, they want this experience, too. We provide that for the kids who would never have the opportunity.”

Other members of the original Grateful Dead have played with DSO, including Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Vince Welnick.

“[Bob Weir and Phil Lesh] had so much respect for us that they stole our guitar player for their band,” Barraco said. Jeff Mattson came in to replace the original guitarist.

On the road, DSO enjoys a family dynamic. Barraco loves spending time with his band buddies and seeing fans and friends he might have lost touch with if he didn’t travel so often.

“The Deadheads are a cool eclectic group of people,” he said, employing the popular phrase for Grateful Dead fans. “Most are generous and big-hearted. I love talking to them. They’re respectful.”

Even years later, DSO still retains its freshness for fans.

“One of the great things is the Dead had the ability to reinvent themselves every few years and be modern with the times,” Barraco said. “They never stagnated. Because of that, there is so much rich material to draw from. Because we change shows every night, we make sure we don’t repeat every night. We can go four or five shows without repeating a song.”

Appropriately, DSO CDs are all recorded live, although the group is now beginning to write original material with the help of veteran Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

Though not a performer, publicist Dave Weissman came in to assist the band in 2002 and has been hooked ever since.

“They’re a big tribute band, and as those words represent, it’s mostly a tribute,” he said. “But they’re a spirit band. They try to step into what the Grateful Dead delivered when they performed. They get to have a fresh take on it every night.”

The Grateful Dead’s music changed so much from era to era that if someone ever grew bored of one style, he could move on to another.

“There’s a breadth and supply of music so great I don’t think they’ll ever get sick of it,” Weissman said.

“Many students were not of age when the Grateful Dead were around and [frontman] Garcia passed,” Weissman said. “This is a great way to carry the torch and hear what the Grateful Dead sounded like in their heyday.”

Both Barraco and Weissman share an excitement for their upcoming Pittsburgh performance. Barraco cited the music hall as a “cool place to play.”

“We already know we are going to play a cool show,” Barraco said. “All I can say is, it’ll be a mind blower.”