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Larned says Dark Star members jam in the style of their adopted personas and avoid musical voicings that sound too much like their own. The goal is to keep it true to the act's predecessors, for good reason. "Obviously," he says, "when we started the band, there was a void to fill after Jerry died. Some people were okay with switching to other bands to follow, but there were a lot of people for whom the music was an integral part of things. It wasn't that they wanted to go on tour with anybody. They wanted to hear these songs performed."
In the past two years, Dark Star Orchestra has hosted at least one member of the Dead, keyboardist Tom Constanten, in a jam session. Constanten, Larned says, found the experience "therapeutic." Larned says he's never heard from any of the Dead's core members about how they feel about his act. But he thinks they approve of the band's shtick for at least one reason. "People come see us," he says, "and go, 'Wow, "Terrapin Station"! I gotta go buy that album.' Then they go to the Dead's Web site and buy the latest Dick's Picks. In the end," he adds, "we're keeping their image alive."
And helping move the Dead's inventory. That idea might appeal to people like David Gans, a longtime Dead associate who broadcasts the "Grateful Dead Hour" on a number of national radio stations and produced the band's latest compilation, even if he has philosophical questions about the act's approach. "I want something different from a live-music experience," Gans says, "and the whole idea of going out there and replicating a show that already happened is the opposite of what I'm looking for. On the other hand, people are paying money to see it and enjoying the hell out of it. So what do I know? It makes a lot of people happy, and that's what entertainment is all about." (Gans recently performed with the act on its current tour, giving the Orchestra another sort of stamp of approval.)
Larned say devout cynics are usually won over at Dark Star shows. But does it get old, squashing one's own creative juices to play the material of someone else? "Like any band," he says, "some nights this is work, some nights it's not. But if I have to be playing any kind of music every night of the week, it would be this music." Besides, it's doubtful any other cover act has people inking its shows for posterity. Blietz equates his employers' efforts with another orchestra locals might be familiar with. "There are people out there playing in the Denver Symphony Orchestra," he notes, "playing Bach and Mozart -- great songs written by great composers that have stood the test of time. The Grateful Dead are no different. Their songs are timeless. People have been listening to them since the '60s, and they'll be listening to them well into this millennium. We're just taking the music of a great American composer and re-creating it the same way an orchestra would.
"Nobody gives a tympani player in the symphony grief for playing Mozart pieces," Blietz adds. "Nobody says, 'Dude, why don't you get in an original act and see what those tympanis can do for somebody else?'"
For now, the Dark Star cast will continue to add to its collection of close to 400 pieces of classic sound, cutting and pasting their repertoire into vintage sets that stretch from the early '70s and end just before the Dead's early-'90s, Bruce Hornsby-on-keyboards shows. Deadheads and Dark Star fans couldn't be happier.
"We had a kid come up to us this weekend," Blietz recalls, "and he said, 'Man, to me, y'all are the Grateful Dead.'" The comment made Blietz squirm, but he can understand what might prompt such sentiments. "This kid, he never got to see the Dead live. And to hear this music the way it's supposed to be played, live, he feels like he's getting an idea of what a live Dead show was like."
And what about those Dark Star Orchestra tapers who'll set up behind the board at the next show for one more reincarnation of the lost Dead? "It is a little bizarre," Blietz concedes, "but to each his own. What's funny is the people who are getting our tapes and playing them at parties, and people start asking, 'What Dead show is that?' Taping," he adds with a chuckle, "is a disease, and there are tapers everywhere these days. I'm sure there are tapers at Britney Spears shows, taping a track-music act. They're taping a tape, man. Now, that's weird."