Premier Grateful Dead tribute band rolls into B-N

2010-11-04T07:00:00Z 2010-11-08T08:05:17Z Premier Grateful Dead tribute band rolls into B-NBy Dan Craft |
November 04, 2010 7:00 am  • 

BLOOMINGTON -- Rob Barraco may not have quite the rampant multiple personality problem of, say, Sally Field's 17-faced "Sybil." But the fact remains: On any given night in his stage life, he's embodying one of no less than six different personalities.

Make that seven, counting his own.

At least Barraco knows the score, musically and otherwise: He's keyboardist for the Dark Star Orchestra, considered by Dead fans -- or at least those Dead fans who don't object to tribute bands -- as the best of its breed.

The DSO, making its B-N debut Saturday at the Castle Theatre, isn't telling us which concert they'll be re-creating verbatim for us.

They never do.

Until the last note is sounded at evening's end, four hours later.

It's the rules.

So Barraco can't say yet which of the Dead's six keyboard players he'll be channeling that night.

His personal favorite, for the record, is Keith Godchaux.


"When I was a kid and saw the Dead for the first time, he was their piano player, and that turned the tide for me in terms of what I wanted to play."

True Deadheads won't need more than a few numbers to figure out which show is being replicated song-for-song, arrangement-for-arrangement, he says.

"By that time, everybody with cell phones will all know, and it'll be up on the Internet before the show's over."

That's par for the course in the world of the Dark Star Orchestra, which, though not the longest-running Dead tribute band in the land, is certainly the one with the most street cred and consistent critical sanction.

To wit:

Rolling Stone: "Quite possibly the most talented and accomplished tribute band out there ... they've definitely mastered their inspiration's vagabond nature."

The New Yorker: "... re-creates Grateful Dead shows with flashback-inducing meticulousness."

Chicago Tribune: " ... often sounds more like the Dead than the Dead sometimes did ..."

And so it goes for the group founded in Chicago in 1997, two years after Jerry Garcia's failing heart ended an era, but not its music or its fan base.

In an uncomfortable case of art imitating life imitating art, the DSO lost its original keyboard player, Scott Larned, to the kind of untimely early death associated with their inspirations.

"Yeah, it was like, wow, another Grateful Dead member bites the dust," says Barraco. "He was a guy who appeared to be in perfect health, but he just had an unhealthy heart that had never been properly diagnosed."

Larned's death occurred in a Virginia hotel room following a DSO performance. He was just 35 (his Dead keyboard counterpart, Keith Godchaux, was 32 when he died in a 1980 car crash).

Needless to say, "It was a shock. Their manager called me right after if happened. They were in a desperate situation, with a monthlong tour coming up, and they could have been financially ruined if they canceled it. Luckily, it worked perfectly into my schedule."

It's worked perfectly ever since, something that Barraco's Dead-leaning history had equipped him for in ways most tribute band musicians can only dream about.

It began with that aforementioned 1972 Dead concert, where the 15-year-old pianist experienced "my first exposure to some alternate reality" and where traditional rock keyboard aesthetics ballooned into something bigger.

Prior to that epiphany, "the Grateful Dead were really not that much to me -- I just wasn't interested. It took two or three shows to really get me going."

He continues: "I come from a jazz improvisation background, and that was what always caught my attention." Lo and behold, Godchaux revealed himself to be a jazz pianist in rock star's clothing.

"It was the last show they did in New York City before their 1972 European tour, and I got to see Pigpen's (Ronald McKernan) last hurrah" (another early demise lay in waiting, as Pigpen died a year later of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage; he was a mere 27).

"It was the beginning of their most creative period," Barraco says, and for the better part of the '70s, he was, if not a camp follower, a highly regular concertgoer. "They were at the point where they had become the really great musicians they'd be for the next 10 years. Before that, they were more like a garage band."

Barraco's musical career ultimately began intersecting with the Dead in more tangible ways, ranging from membership in a seminal Dead cover band, the Zen Tricksters, followed by a series of hitches in various configurations involving Dead member Phil Lesh (Phil Lesh & Friends, The Other Ones, etc.).

His old Trickster crony Jeff Mattson, a man with a hefty Dead past, too, recently joined the DSO, replacing guitarist and founding member John Kadlecik, who departed to join Lesh and Bob Weir in a new band, Further.

Of the drug-infused lifestyle that followed the Dead through their journey over the decades, Barraco says he understands it, but doesn't subscribe to it personally.

"There's definitely an allure to that lifestyle for some people," he admits. "It was certainly one of the things that drew me in, too. But because I was always more devoted to being a musician, I spent most of my life working. I've just never had the time to become a part of that."

These days, he's too busy becoming other people on stage.

But only on stage.

"At the end of the day," Barraco says, "I still have to play me."

At a glance

What: The Dark Star Orchestra

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Castle Theatre, 209 E. Washington St., Bloomington

Tickets: $23 to $25

Box office: 309-820-0352


Members of Grateful Dead tribute band the Dark Star Orchestra have more than music tying them to their inspirations, witness the Dead-ending career trajectories of keyboardist Rob Barraco and lead guitarist Jeff Mattson:

Rob Barraco

• Zen Tricksters: One of the longest-running GD tribute bands, founded in New York 1979; Barraco joined around 10 years into the band's history and remained for another 11 years.

• Lesh/Dylan: GD bassist Phil Lesh invited Barraco to join him on his tour with Bob Dylan.

• Phil Lesh Quintet: Barraco became a permanent member of Lesh's group for three years.

• The Other Ones: Barraco became a part of this GD amalgam featuring, at various points, Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bruce Hornsby; Barraco's tenure was 2002-3.

• Phil Lesh & Friends: Barraco continued to perform with Lesh in this configuration during 2005-6.

• Robert Hunter: Barraco collaborated with the GD lyricist on his 2007 solo album, "When We All Come Home."

Jeff Mattson

• Zen Tricksters; Mattson was a founding member of the GD cover band, circa 1979.

• Donna Jean & The Tricksters (aka Donna Jean Godchaux Band and Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson): Mattson collaborated with the GD's female alumnus for a tour and album in 2008.

• Phil Lesh & Friends: Mattson joined fellow Zen Trickster Barraco for several shows.

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