Now in its 22 year of recreating the Grateful Dead experience, Dark Star Orchestra returns to the State Theatre on Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. DSO keyboardist Rob Barraco is a die-hard (tie-dyed?) Dead fan who saw the legendary 5/8/77 show at Barton Hall when he was a junior at New Paltz College.
“We set our sights on as many of the Dead shows as we possibly could that spring,” said Barraco, “and that happened to be the second to last one I caught, which was at Cornell.”
“I personally didn’t think Cornell was any better than any other show. I thought it was just a good show. We got there late and Barton Hall is a really awful place to see a show.” Barraco spoke to the Ithaca Times about DSO’s working methods and the right way to approach “drums/space”.
IT: When you guys play, you’re usually recreating a secret Dead set list.
RB: We’ll take a look at what we’ve done in Ithaca the last three or four plays, and we’ll try to pick something that’s a little different, or we’ll do what we call an elective: We’ll just make up our own set list. It’s kinda cool because it keeps people guessing, and then all of a sudden there’ll be one obvious tune thrown in there, like a Jerry Garcia Band tune, which, of course, the Dead wouldn’t have ever played. For those who are savvy, they pick up on it. We also need to keep it interesting for ourselves, so we try to keep the set lists different every night, different eras every night, so we’re constantly challenging ourselves.
IT: And at this point, you’ve played more shows than the Dead.
RB: Oh yeah. We’re way over now. We’re in the 3000 range now.
IT: I think I could pitch in musically on just about any Dead song, but I don’t know what I would bring to the nightly “drums/space” section. I think that’s when I’d go get a glass of water.
RB: Well, the cool thing with drums is, our drummers, what they do every day, if we’re doing a recreation, they’ll listen to what Mickey [Hart] and Billy [Kreutzmann] played, and get a sense of the instruments they were using. Like in the ’80s, they had a very specialized drum set up, they had all these huge toms, and this thing called “The Beam,” which was this huge steel girder that was stretched with piano wire that Mickey tuned to specific frequencies, and he would put them through processors and play that. So our guys will listen, and we’ve got all those instruments, they recreated all of them. So they’ll come up with patterns to play over and then they just improvise. When they’re done, Jeff Mattson, our lead guitar player, and I get up, and we just start playing and we see where it goes. The both of us are pretty well versed in improv, and we just kinda riff away and see where it takes us, and the rest of the guys join in, and we never know where it’s gonna go. So it keeps it real fresh for us all the time, and it’s a cool trip for the audience ‘cause obviously they don’t know where we’re going, either. [laughs]
IT: I guess that’s the only way to do it.
RB: It is the only way to do it. When you’ve played as long as we have, you just get to a point where it’s just second nature. It’s something I do every day. As soon as I get off the phone with you, I’m gonna sit down for two or three hours and play, and I’m constantly coming up with new ideas and working on old stuff. It becomes second nature.