It started as a weekly jam session among a group of talented musicians.
It became a franchise.
Since their first show at Martyrs’ in Chicago on Nov. 11, 1997, Dark Star Orchestra has played more than 1,800 shows, establishing themselves as the premier Grateful Dead cover band.
They have, in fact, picked up where the Grateful Dead left off.
“Quite possibly the most talented and accomplished tribute band out there,”?Rolling Stone magazine once said of them. “They’ve definitely mastered their inspiration’s vagabond nature.”
Nearly 13 years removed from that first show, DSO will add to their resume on Thursday, when they swing through the Lower Hudson Valley for a show at the historic Tarrytown Music Hall.
“When they started it in ‘97 it was just a little weekly thing for fun in Chicago,” Dark Star Orchestra drummer Rob Koritz told The Listening Room. “When I came on in ‘99 it had started to get popular. From there, when I joined in ‘99 was really the first big national tour.”
“It took off and everyone was pretty much blown away,”?he says. “I mean, we’re still surprised. We had no preconceived expectations of what was going to happen.”
Dark Star Orchestra was born two years after Grateful Dead founder Jerry Garcia died, ending the band’s legendary career.
In 1997, guitarist John Kadlecik reached out to keyboard player Scott Larned with an idea for a new project. The idea was to perform Grateful Dead covers at a local Chicago club called Martyrs, recreating actual past shows by the legendary band.
After filling in the lineup, DSO signed up for regular Tuesday night shows at Martyrs,’ with their first show before an audience of just 78. But word spread, and by the fourth show DSO was regularly selling out the venue.
And it wasn’t just the fans who were noticing. On the one-year anniversary of the first show, DSO was joined on stage by?Mike Gordon and John Fishman from the band jam Phish.
DSO’s concept of recreating past shows played off of the obsession that the Grateful Dead’s fans—the famed “Dead Heads”— had for keeping and collecting set lists and live recordings of specific performances.
Dark Star Orchestra would take it one step further, and actually recreate the shows on stage.
“It’s not done randomly at all,”?Koritz says. “We might match up a date and play a Feb. 3 show on Feb. 3,” he said. “We might play a Long Island show on Long Island. It just depends. But there’s definitely a lot of thought that goes into it before we go out on the road.”
But the band keeps the date secret until show time — they won’t reveal which Grateful Dead show they’ll play at the Tarrytown Music Hall until they take the stage.
DSO’s mastery of the Grateful Dead catalogue has also lead to a close musical relationship with the Dead’s surviving members. Over the years the band has performed with Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Donna Jean Godchaux, Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten. In 2009 Kadlecik, the band’s founding member, was asked to join Weir and former Dead bassist Phil Lesh in a new musical project, the band Furthur.
“Playing with Dark Star Orchestra is something that feels just exactly like it felt when I was playing with the Grateful Dead,” Godchaux, a onetime singer with the Dead, once said of DSO.
Koritz says that playing with the artists they’ve covered for 13 years is in itself “pretty cool.”
“As cool as it was the first time, it’s even more validating when it happens a second time, when they had a good enough time to want to come and do it again,” he says. “Making music with people you looked up to musically, there’s no better feeling.”
But don’t think DSO is strictly trapped in time.?Band members have veered off into side projects and are jointly writing original material on the side. Koritz concedes that, as much as they love their job, the band occasionally needs a musical outlet or two.
“In all honesty I think most of us would have preferred to make our living playing original music,” he says. “But, you know, we’re blessed that we get to keep making a living playing music because of this. Would it have been my first choice??No, but we all have the dreams and then we all have realities. And my reality’s great.”
“I?love my job,” Koritz adds. “We’re totally fortunate to be able to do what we do.”
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