The Grateful Dead were one of the most significant bands in history. Pioneers of jam bands, they led a scene and helped a movement. Dark Star Orchestra is a Grateful Dead cover band that formed in Chicago in 1997. Their goal was to play full Grateful Dead sets and give the audience a true experience of a Dead show. Today they tour all around the country playing different set lists from the Grateful Dead every night allowing the music to keep on living. NUVO talked with Dark Star Orchestra drummer Dino English about his experience.
NUVO: You've been playing All Good since 2001 - what can you tell me about this festival?
Dino English: We look forward to it every year. It is an opportunity to play for potential fans we haven't played in front of before. That's what festivals are good for and All Good is a great experience. Tim always treats us really well and treats the concertgoers really well too with a great music lineup and lots of activities to do. And the place, which is Buckeye Lake, the Grateful Dead actually played there many times in the late 80s and early 90s. I actually saw a Dead show there so it's kind of hologram for us.
NUVO: What changes have you seen All Good go through?
English: Well it used to be in West Virginia and the first time played there I think it was in Virginia. So Tim has moved on to other grounds. West Virginia grew really large having been making that the main place for so many years. It was just time to move to another place so there is always a certain process to reestablish yourself in a new area. But this place here in Ohio is a wonderful place.
NUVO: So you guys play full Grateful Dead sets. Is there any particular way you choose which sets to perform?
English: Yeah we play actual Grateful Dead shows probably two thirds of the time and a lot of times we do a whole Grateful Dead show at a festival situation. For All Good we are doing a 75-minute set but most Grateful Dead shows took four hours though. We have publicized this as a rare acoustic show that we are doing. So we are doing acoustic Grateful Dead, which is a niche. And its something we really enjoy doing it brings out other material we wouldn't usually play and it is a nice change of pace.
The way we go about choosing which show to play is we basically do a rotation. For instance if we go into an area and we played an early 70 show the last time we ran we will do something else like later 70s, 80s, 90s. So we try to break it up by doing something we haven't done in that area before. And on top of that we do our own set lists where we mix in different eras so that happens too. And then there is the occasional acoustic show. It also has to do with the size of the stage and if it can accommodate our full set up or if it is a smaller stage we are normally confined to doing one drummer shows.
NUVO: So do you guys really know every Grateful Dead song? How did you go about learning them?
English: We know probably 90 percent of them. There are a few of the songs that have sort of left the rotation that we don't play. We basically do rotations from '69 to '95. But they started in '65 so there are a lot of early songs we don't play very often. We do throw some in the acoustic shows or our own set lists.
NUVO: What is your Grateful Dead favorite song?
English: My favorite song is "Comes a Time" because the lyrics are so poignant.
NUVO: Why are you guys called Dark Star Orchestra?
English: Dark Star is a song by the Grateful Dead and a coined essential Grateful Dead song. A Dark Star changes form every night and so that is the analogy for us.
NUVO: How did you get involved with the band?
English: In 1999, I was looking at their website and a pop up comes up that DSO is looking for a drummer and having playing in a Grateful Dead band before that, having traveled extensively and knowing most of the songs I thought I was a good candidate for what they were looking for. So I wrote Scott the keyboard player and manager at the time and he said he would give me a shot so I went and played an audition show in Chicago. That was a sold out crowd. And that's the way Dark Star does everything. They sort of throw you in to sink or swim and I've been able to swim ever since.
NUVO: What is life on the road like?
English: It is very rewarding. I have been doing it for 14 years. But it's a little bit of everything. It's tough at times you have to be away from your family for extended periods of time, which is kind of rough because I have two little girls but the music makes it worth it. Once we get on stage, that's why we're there to play the music the best we can. The group mind that comes out of the band when we play is something special to all of us.
NUVO: Can you tell me about Dark Star High School?
English: This will be the first year we are doing it and we are really looking forward to it. We are basically getting anybody who is interested in this music we are giving the opportunity to learn basically what we have learned over the years. To put it simply we are teaching Grateful Dead music. So if there are guitar players and drummers who want to come out and learn basically learn to approach the music like we approach it, which is more of a traditional sort of way. And also learn to improvise because that's the element in Grateful Dead music - improvisation. So it is basically going to teach how to play songs correctly then open it up to insert you own personality into the music.
NUVO: How did Dark Star Orchestra begin?
English: Scott our keyboard player and John from Furthur got together and had this idea of recreating a Grateful Dead show or playing a set list. And they wanted to do it with the same instrumentation of the actual show. So they hired different musicians in the Chicago area to play different Grateful Dead music around town. The first shows were at Martyrs and they got every Tuesday for a month. The first Tuesday there were like 80 people there and the last Tuesday it was sold out over 400 so they wanted to keep it going.
NUVO: Can you tell me about Dark Star Jubilee?
English: We wanted to do our own festival for years and we finally got around to it last year. We tried to embrace the Grateful Dead scene more than other festivals nowadays, which are moving towards modern music like Bonnaroo, which is great, but they are loosing the Grateful Dead vibe about it. So we are focusing in on that. So that is the purpose of Dark Star Jubilee.
The first year we had Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart both playing separately in their own bands. This last year we had Mickey back and he had a great performance with his band. And Donna was there. And we have had all sorts of great artists and somehow most of them are connected to the Dead scene. We hope to keep growing next year and hope to keep it going as long as we can pull it off. It is a real fun weekend with three nights of music. Both of the years have been real special in their own way. This last one we had Melvin Seals and JGB. So we are just trying to keep the vibe going that way.
NUVO: Do you have a favorite venue to play at?
English: The Fillmore in San Francisco is a special place for sure because it is where a lot of music started. Penn's Peak in Pennsylvania is a great place. There's really too many to name. Every area has really good venues we aim to get. We haven't played Red Rocks yet but that is a goal of ours to eventually hit there.
NUVO: Why do you think it's important to keep the Grateful Dead scene alive?
English: The music is just special. It impacted our lives so greatly that we know it can impact others even though Jerry's not around. Jerry was the key member of the band or the glue that kept it all together. Of course since he died the music has still lived on because it is so powerful. Once you get immersed in it or once you get it, as they say, it just becomes a part of your life. It has been a lot of good times for me and I want to pass on those good times to everybody.