Dark Star: Not Your Typical Orchestra

On December 28th, 2015, I made the trek to The National in downtown Richmond for the experience of seeing a Grateful Dead concert recreated by the tribute and cover band Dark Star Orchestra. This was the first night of a two night stint.

Although typically classified as a rock band, the Grateful Dead plays a wide variety of songs; many of them include elements of bluegrass, jazz, and folk. The Grateful Dead is known for their live shows, where they play long, improvisational jams. Over their entire 50 year history, they have never repeated a set list. The Grateful Dead has has many members over its long history, but the most commonly known are Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh. Throughout the time they were most active, the Grateful Dead developed a large and passionate fan base, known as “Deadheads,” and these fans are easily recognizable by their dancing bears, roses, and skeletons, and their ability to recall an entire set list and recognize a song in the first few notes. Jerry Garcia said, “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” Deadheads are a devoted group and well known for their passionate following of the Grateful Dead’s live shows.

The Grateful Dead’s heyday has long passed, but many other jam bands have developed since the Dead’s prime. While there are many Grateful Dead cover bands, Dark Star Orchestra, named after the song “Dark Star,” is noteworthy for their goal to recreate a specific Grateful Dead show. They formed in 1997 in Chicago to continue the Grateful Dead’s legacy. Dark Star Orchestra is meticulous in their recreation, adjusting their instruments based on the time period they are playing. Brian Justice, Upper School religion teacher, was complimentary of Dark Star Orchestra, saying they do well with, “the element of improvisation and spontaneity,” which the Grateful Dead is known for. Dark Star Orchestra’s members have the musical adaptability of the Dead. Skip Vangelas, Rob Koritz, Dino English, Rob Eaton, Rob Barraco, and Jeff Mattson are Dark Star Orchestra’s current members. Lisa Mackey joins to provide the female vocal harmonies of Donna Godchaux, who accompanied the Grateful Dead throughout the 1970s. Dark Star Orchestra selects a set list from the Grateful Dead’s long history of shows and play that exact set list, with the subtle song transitions and teasers that the Grateful Dead is known for.

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Dark Star Orchestra at The National performing “Friend of the Devil.” Photograph by Abigail Winfree.

On December 28th, 2015, Dark Star Orchestra recreated the Grateful Dead’s show from July 7th, 1978 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. When I spoke to Mr. Justice, he knew the set list from this show and was able to rattle off the first few songs without even a hint. The show was an incredible representation of the Grateful Dead. As I listened to them play, I noticed haunting similarities in their presentation of the music. Aside from the songs being the same and in the same order, they nailed the transitory element, between songs, that adds an improvisational, psychedelic aura to the music. Their transition from “Scarlet Begonias” to “Fire on the Mountain” (often referred to by fans as “Scarlet/Fire”) in the second set astounded me in its fluidity and altogether very “Dead-like” sound. They were able to get lost in the songs, yet still retain the psychedelic Grateful Dead sound, creating an experience along with an excellent musical display. Kate Scott, a devoted Dead follower and freshman at Virginia Tech, saw both of their shows at The National, and says, “I think both nights were super groovy. I liked the set list of the first night because it was good for a young crowd, they played a lot of popular songs that I could sing along to.” Kate also mentioned that Dark Star Orchestra made their own set list the second night, which she thought made their performance stronger, because they could bring out their strengths. They also made some modifications to the original concert. For example, their version of “Friend of the Devil” was significantly slowed, yet they were able to capture the original emotions of the song through their careful sound.

The National was a great venue for this concert; you can move about, dancing and mingling among the crowd, sharing thoughts on the music, and singing along, providing the full social experience that Grateful Dead shows are able to deliver. Aidan Mickleburgh (‘18) said, “it wasn’t my favorite show in terms of music, but the first concert I’d ever been to that felt like one big party, and that made it well worth it.” Although Aidan does not “like licorice,” he could still appreciate that the concert was alive with Deadheads twirling to the music.

Overall, Dark Star Orchestra was a memorable experience, and I would recommend their shows to anyone, even if not a Deadhead. It was filled with great music, fun people, and historical accuracy.
Follow these links to listen to recordings of Dark Star Orchestra and Grateful Dead shows.

About the author

Abigail Winfree is a junior, who is that weird horse girl.