“We never say what we are playing before,” said Dino English, a drummer for the Dark Star Orchestra and a self-proclaimed Dead Head.
Sometimes the band plays its own material, sometimes it plays more exact replicas of Grateful Dead concerts. Both are psychedelic, guitar-driven rock.
“It is a guessing game,” English said. “It’s part of the fun.”
The Dark Star Orchestra has been recreating the Grateful Dead experience since its first gig, Nov. 11, 1997, at an old club in Chicago called Martyrs’. Tonight, Dark Star Orchestra will take the stage at the Knitting Factory at 8 p.m. for an all-ages show.
What fans will experience is up to them.
“No two Dead Heads can agree on exactly what the Grateful Dead experience is,” English said. “What does seem to be present is something that some people call the X factor. ‘It’ happening. Something happens at these shows that got everybody on the same wavelength all at once.”
English and his fellow band members have been recreating the Grateful Dead experience one concert at a time, passing the 1,800 shows mark in 2009.
“Over the years everything has changed here and there,” English said. “Basically we are here to keep the music alive and going into the future.”
Just like the original Grateful Dead, the Dark Star Orchestra has evolved over the years. However, some of their on-stage evolution has been done purposefully to match the Grateful Dead’s changing sounds.
“We follow the style of the time,” English said. “Some songs were faster in some years, other years they were slower. The organ we pull out for the ‘80s shows. … Play the song in the style of the arrangement they did for that certain show.”
At its show in Ashland, Ore. Tuesday, for example, the band played a set from the Dead’s Dec. 6, 1973, show, which was in Cleveland. By contrast, Dark Star’s set list just a week earlier on April 14 was all original material. You just never know what you’re going to get.
The Dark Star Orchestra has been delivering the Grateful Dead experience since 1997 after guitarist John Kadlecik got together with keyboardist Scott Larned. The first show at the Chicago Martyrs’ attracted only 78 people. But by the fourth week of performing, Dark Star had sold out the room.
One year later, Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman of Phish joined the band. The orchestra was on a roll, selling out concerts on its inaugural tour.
On lead guitar and vocals, Kadlecik used amp rigs and other equipment to imitate the great Jerry Garcia’s guitar tone. English delivered the rhythmic drumming sounds of Bill Kreutzmann. On the other drum set, Rob Koritz fills the Mickey Hart role. Kevin Rosen provides a style of bass playing similar to that of Phil Lesh. Rob Eaton performs rhythm guitar and vocals and Lisa Mackey adds her voice to the mix as well.
After Larned died of a heart attack in 2005, Rob Barraco stepped up to take the keyboard. On Thursday at the Knitting Factory, Stu Allen will be taking the Jerry Garcia role on lead guitar and vocals. A devotee of the Grateful Dead himself, Allen has played in the Jerry Garcia Band.
Each of the orchestra members are self-proclaimed Dead Heads. English found his love of the group in the Sandstone Amphitheater in Kansas.
“I didn’t really understand what the whole thing was about,” English said of his first Grateful Dead concert experience in the early 1990s. “I had a friend who was trying to turn me on to the Grateful Dead. I literally got dragged to the show. It was at that show that the lights came on and I have been a Dead Head ever since.
“Grateful dead is my favorite music,” he added. “It encompasses so many different styles of American music. It is also music that brings people together with a communal spirit.”
The Dark Star Orchestra will perform tonight at the Knitting Factory, 211 N. Virginia St. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the all-ages show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets cost between $22 and $40 and are available online at http://re.knittingfactory.com.