By Noah Hubbell
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The members of Dark Star Orchestra might take issue with those who say you cannot bring the Dead back to life. For the past three years, this Chicago-based act has built a national following by resurrecting the music of the late Grateful Dead. Each night, the Orchestra repeats a particular performance from the Dead's list of nearly 2,500 shows, to the delight of those who still jones for a long, strange trip. These days, Dark Star gigs are doing some resurrecting of their own, in a practice the Dead's remaining members should find amusing: taping. Much like Dead fans did during the heyday of the original taper act, the band's fans are setting up behind the board at DSO shows, essentially chronicling second-generation Dead to first-generation tapes and CDRs.
"It's pretty cool," says DSO founding member Scott Larned, who plays the part of Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland. "But it's a little weird, too. It's weird that this is not necessarily our music, and it's weird that we've fallen into these roles, so to speak. Initially," he adds, "there was this reaction among Deadheads and tapers: 'Why would you get a tape of this when you could get a tape of the original show?'"
Good question. The idea of Dead fans listening to faux recordings of Jerry and the boys seems as odd as Broncos fans watching video re-enactments of Elway and mates winning the Super Bowl. Bor-ing. But Cameron Blietz, the Orchestra's soundman and provider of the live feeds that tape fiends seek from his soundboard, defends the practice. "This band has re-created shows that I remember seeing that were terrible," says Blietz, who estimates he saw the Dead at least a hundred times. "Dark Star Orchestra has given me those shows back, cleaning up whatever the problem was, whether it was a girlfriend being pissed off or the guy sitting next to me being so drunk that he had to sing all the words -- even though he didn't know them." Or the reality that in the Dead's later years, guitarist Jerry Garcia's playing had decayed into drug-addled, out-of-it performances. "We don't have John miss lyrics or solo in the wrong key," Larned says, referring to DSO member John Kadlecik, who plays the role of Garcia.
DSO does instill a history book of Dead touches in its shows, though. Bandmembers use vintage instruments and gear matching that used by the Dead in whichever show they are duping. They set up on stage in the positions once filled by the original players. The players also install little details such as one-time extra verses and "important" mistakes the Dead made in a given show. Snippets of stage banter are also occasionally repeated. The band's current Bob Weir, for example, typically announces set breaks à la his namesake. ("We've had six Bobs in the last six months," Larned notes, "and each one has brought one part of Bob's role to the table very well.")
All of these touches combine for a singular experience for those hungry for a "Touch of Grey" or another ride with Casey Jones. "We get people crying all the time, man," Blietz says. "We get people coming up after the show, saying, 'I thought it was all gone,' and 'God bless you guys for doing what you're doing.' It used to make me uncomfortable when people got so reverential. But this music is really important to people. And the reason it connects with people is because we've taken it to such a hyper degree of what the original musicians did."
Dark Star fan Jeff Foege agrees. "I love Dead music, and they do it the best of any band," says the former Chicago resident, who now lives in Superior, Colorado. Foege saw the Dead a handful of times and has seen Dark Star Orchestra over a hundred times. "When DSO came around," he says, "it was my chance to revisit those earlier [Dead] shows live." Today Foege is among Dark Star's tape-trader contingent. He gets recordings via the band's extensive "Tape Tree," a volunteer network managed by the Orchestra that aids in connecting fans with recordings. The band distributes ten copies of each show to ten main "branches," people who agree to provide more copies to anyone interested; those recipients pass tapes on to even more fans. Larned estimates the system now includes about a hundred branches and far more end-user "leaves." (Access the band's taping community at darkstarorchestra.net.)
Foege says that when the Orchestra's live tapes started circulating, he also heard people question the idea of archiving the band's reproductions. But for him, the practice makes sense. "I want to collect live music, whether it's the Dead or DSO," says Foege, who also collects shows from various jam acts. "DSO happens to play the music that I like best." The band's jams within their Dead re-creations also provide fresh material worthy of repeated listens, he says. "There are huge parts of our shows where we're making live music happen on stage," Larned points out. "That's where the value of the tapes comes in. Not only do we sing and play like the Dead, but the jams are similar."
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."