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Grateful Dead tribute band plays Live on the Levee

WANT TO GO?

Dark Star Orchestra

A Live on the Levee concert

WHERE: Haddad Riverfront Park

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday

COST: Free

INFO: 304-348-8014, ext. 105 or www.liveontheleveecharleston.comCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra doesn't try to play every Grateful Dead song note for note. The band, best known for recreating the music and the concerts of the iconic rock band, believe that exact reproduction is beside the point.

For DSO, who brings its big batch of groovy music to Live on the Levee Friday, it's more about being true to the spirit of the music.

"We go for the arrangements of the songs as they are, but there's a lot of leeway in the framework," drummer Dino English explained. "We're all familiar with the basic layout of the song, but there's a lot of room to improvise."

Everybody seems fine with that, including the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, most of whom DSO has performed with or shared the stage with over the last 15 years.

After Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and effectively ended the group's epic 30-year-run, the remaining members of the band continued on -- occasionally together in one configuration or another, or just as often separately -- but a kind of void was left.

The Grateful Dead was more than a band. It was a culture.

As a musical act, the group never amassed more than a few actual radio hits, but devoted fans of the band, called "deadheads," didn't buy a lot of records. They loved the shows.

Deadheads traveled gypsy-style with the band, following in caravans of beat up cars and camping out in parking lots. It wasn't unusual for a deadhead to see the band more than 100 times, and the Grateful Dead encouraged fans to tape shows, which were duplicated and openly sold or traded.

After Garcia died, a lot of that came to a halt.

Dark Star Orchestra arose from a group of Chicago-based tribute bands.

"We were all big Grateful Dead fans," English explained. "We came from that place as a starting point."

English, who joined DSO a year and a half after it's formation in 1997, said he'd seen The Grateful Dead about 20 times while the band was still active.

"But I'm one of the more baby deadheads. I'm 43 and I saw them for the first time in 1991, but others saw them back in the 1970s."

The group was founded by John Kadlecik and Scott Larned. The original players were handpicked from area Grateful Dead tribute bands.

"The first show had, like 80 people [there]," English said. "The second show sold out and so did the next one."

Fans jumped on board, and DSO began to pick up momentum.

English said some of the original members of the group moved on or dropped out, but musicians from around the country quickly replaced them.

"It was kind of like all-star baseball," he said.

And it has led to some amazing moments, English added, both as a musician and a Grateful Dead fan.

"The first time we played with Bob Weir, I was on cloud nine," he said.

Weir, a guitarist and one of the singers for the Grateful Dead, has played with the band several times since. English said it's still pretty great.

There's also been some crossover between Grateful Dead projects and DSO. Kadlecik joined Furthur, a group formed by Grateful Dead alumnus Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Keyboardist Rob Barraco played with Phil Lesh and Friends and The Dead, the band that followed immediately after Garcia's death. And guitarist Jeff Mattson plays in Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux's band.

While Dark Star Orchestra sticks primarily with Grateful Dead songs, the band did write one song with Grateful Dead lyricist Robbie Hunter.

"We feel OK with pulling that one every once in a while."

English said the band is recording some original material, but it's more of a side project.

"With DSO, we really don't want to inject our egos into the music," he explained.

 It's an approach that's paid off. DSO has thrived to become a regular act on the summer festival circuit and it maintains a demanding touring schedule.

"We play about 135 shows a year," English said. "With travel days, we're away from home about half the year."

A fun fact: According to English, The Grateful Dead played 3,350 shows over 30 years. Dark Star Orchestar has performed 2,086 shows.

"And it only took us 15 years."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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