Solving The Grateful Dead’s Rubik’s Cube: An Interview with Dark Star Orchestra


Dark Star Orchestra is set to play this Tuesday and Wednesday (April 7th and 8th) at the Great American Music Hall, and for anyone who is a fan of improvisational jam music – this is a must see. You can get an idea of what’s in store here.

For those of you unfamiliar with the group, here’s a quick breakdown: since 1997, they’ve been playing specific sets from the Grateful Dead, from specific shows. So they’ll choose a particular show, say March 23rd, 1975, and play that show song-for-song. But that doesn’t mean note-for-note – in fact, just as jam bands like the Dead don’t ever play a song the same way twice, neither does Dark Star.

And not only are they playing these shows song-for-song, they absolutely slay the songs. I keep wanting to say “cover band”, or “tribute band,” but I’m not sure that phrase really does it justice. The first time I ever saw this band, I was sitting on top of Marvin’s Mountaintop for the All Good Festival in Masontown, West Virginia, thinking: “holy shit, this might actually be the closest thing I’ll get to hearing what a live Grateful Dead sounds like.” Granted, that was before Further got going, but you get what I’m saying.

And the Grateful Dead is, without question, one of the greatest, most influential and impactful bands in American history. Whether you’re a fan or not, this is simply a fact. The fact that some asshole scalper out there is selling tickets to their final Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago for $200k, should be evidence enough. It’s comforting to know that there are still bands out there actively working to keep this music – and this scene – alive.

Make sure to get your tickets here before the shows sell out (here’s Tuesday, here’s Wednesday), which I’m almost positive it will.

I recently had the incredible opportunity to interview Dino English, drummer of Dark Star, and he was nice enough to give me some stellar answers. Check it out:

How did you guys land on the name Dark Star Orchestra? Tell us a bit about the impetus of the band.

Scott Larned, one of the two founding members and our first keyboard player, came up with the name. He just thought it was appropriate for our approach. John Kadlecik was the other person who co-founded the band. They threw around names and Dark Star Orchestra stuck. One of John’s suggestions was Terrapin Nation which we ended up using as side project that had a looser approach in musical material.

There’s been a ton of transition among members since ’97. Has that been difficult? I imagine it might also add a cool element of variety and innovation though too?

Every member past and present has served the music well. It just so happens that there is no one left in the band that was present for the first gig. Lisa (Mackey) is the longest standing member, who first performed a couple of months after the initial gig. Every new person who has come aboard has offered up a new flavor of interpretation for the music. The way DSO works is that once your in, you’re in. It’s basically that person’s gig until they need to leave for some reason. When a position becomes open, a national search is undertaken to find the best person for the position. Luckily, the finest players who know the music are usually willing to step in because it is a great gig. Because we are able to get the best players, the music continues to elevate. I am a little biased but I believe our current lineup is the strongest it’s ever been and I think many would agree. Skip Vangeles on bass is our newest addition. He’s been with he band almost two years now and has brought us up to a new level.

How do you choose which set you’ll be playing? Any method to the madness?

We try to change it up from the last time being at the same venue or area and we try to keep the song repeats to a minimum from day to day. Also, the size of the stage may dictate what we can play. We need a big stage to pull off an 80’s show because it requires more equipment. Small stages almost always means a one drummer show. Rob Eaton picks the shows and he does a great job of figuring it out from the qualifications I mentioned. It’s almost like trying to fix a Rubik’s Cube.

Do you have a favorite set of all time? Also, just curious – how about a favorite year?

I do not have a favorite set although I have my certain tapes that I listened to over and over again when I was first getting into this music. One was June 24th 1985 second set. I don’t really have a favorite year but I tend to like 1977 through 1987 shows because of the way the they flowed. They settled into a formulaic approach by then with the first set material and second set material and most every song they played was a good one. Some don’t like those eras because it became a little predictable if you were really tuned in. But I think the way the show material settled in during this these time periods made a lot of sense for the overall effect. I also like all the one drummer time periods because they offer up that one drummer sound.

I saw that Jon Fishman and Mike Gordon have played with y’all before — how did that come to happen? 

Fishman sat in before I was in the band so I don’t know. I have hung with Fishman a bit and he played on my album entitled “Shimmy Shack’ but I never asked. I think it was because John’s ex-wife was friends with some of the Phish guys and she may have invited him down to Martyr in Chicago.

Gordon has played with us a and that was up at the Higher Ground in Burlington Vermont where they are from. He was just hanging out so we asked him to play. I’ve gotten to play with him several times, once previous to my time playing in DSO at a local gig in St. Louis on a pay off of their tour. Again, he was just hanging out so we asked him to play.

Also, curious: what do you think about Trey (Anastasio) playing these shows in Chicago?

I think Trey is a great choice for the final shows. I just wish it could be a whole tour as with every new grouping of people, things need a little time to settle in. I’ve always wondered what he’d sound like with the full band (since Jerry’s passing) and I guess we’ll find out.

Any new jam bands that you guys are into?

I think the band that always perks my ears up when I hear them is Kung Fu… awesome musicians – phenomenal guitarist and drummer! They played together as the Psychedelic Breakfast and later as The Breakfast way back but their new approach with Kung Fu is a little more accessible to the general public.

Final question – how do you think these final shows in CHI are going to affect Dark Star as a band? Is this going to affect how you guys do things, and is there any chance we could see some of the living members of the Dead joining you for stints at a time?

You may see an occasional sit in with any one of the members (Although we have yet to get Mickey to join us onstage although he invited Rob Koritz and I to sit in with his band which we was a lot of fun). Weir joined us for a set about a year ago and Phil a little before that. Donna is a regular and TC (Tom Constanten) is a hoot. We will be playing with Melvin Seals of the Jerry Garcia Band at Gathering Of The Vibes this year. Any of those guys are always welcome to come play and it’s always a kick when it happens. But I don’t see any of them doing any stints of time with us. I would never say never as strange things do happen. We did get Dan Healy, the Grateful Dead’s stellar sound man, to come out with us for about a year and that was an amazing experience.

I have no idea how the Chicago shows will effect us but in the past whenever a Dead tour would happen, it seems to reinvigorate the scene a bit and gets new people interested. I think I can see evidence with that with this latest show announcement. All I know is that we will keep on keeping on as it’s our goal to keep the music alive into the future.