In November, 1997, a couple of music loving friends put together a band with the vision of recreating Grateful Dead shows in their entirety, as an homage to the music they loved. Instead of trying to recreate the music note for note, the band chose to adapt to the musical stylings the Dead were using at the time of the original performance.
It was a blueprint that started in a club in Chicago and has carried them across the country for the last twenty years. Dark Star Orchestra will return to Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe tonight for their annual Thanksgiving Eve throw down.
Twenty years together is an accomplishment for any band, but for DSO drummer Dino English, having the freedom to explore new grounds with music he and his bandmates grew up on is something that is still at the forefront.
“As the cliché saying goes, it’s been a long, strange trip,” English said of his 18 years in the band. “It’s been very fulfilling in a lot of different ways. The way that we approach the whole thing is creatively rewarding for me. I get to play some of my favorite tunes in the style I’d prefer to play them in, and I have an open book of possibilities in the creative realm of music. I’m really interested in the jamming aspect of it, and the improvisation. This music gives me opportunity to explore any idea I can think of.”
Throughout the last two decades DSO — English, drummer Rob Koritz, lead guitarist Jeff Mattson, rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton, keyboardist Rob Barraco, vocalist Lisa Mackey and bassist Skip Vangelas — has carried on through various lineup changes and even a band member’s death (founding keyboardist Scott Larned in 2005).
Many of the former members are familiar faces to Northeastern Pennsylvania dating back to DSO performances at The Woodlands and The Staircase Lounge. Keeping with the family tradition the Dead started, many of DSO’s former members keep in touch with the outfit, no doubt showing their support to the continuation of a project they helped build.
“(Former bassist) Kevin Rosen – every time we pass through Chicago, he normally stops by and we all keep in touch,” English said. “I did do a gig with (former rhythm guitarist) Mike Maraat. It’s been about seven years now I think, so I haven’t really stayed in touch with him so much. I only played with him for about six months before he left the band. Ahmer Nizam, the original drummer, we normally see him out in Seattle.”
Along with building a rabid fan base, DSO has founded events over the last twenty years, including forming its own yearly festival — Dark Star Jubilee — in Legend Valley, Ohio. The event brings together many of the band’s contemporaries and veteran acts like the David Nelson Band and Hot Tuna, which always leads to unique performances.
“That’s really turned out to be a fun event for us as well,” English explained. “It’s always fun to play with our peers and some of our idols — we got to play “White Rabbit” with Jorma (Kaukonen) and Jack Casady for the first time they’ve played it in a long, long time. Special things like that happen there.”
Another multi-day, DSO-hosted event is the annual Jam in the Sand, a five day resort getaway in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. The event has become a yearly destination for DSO fans as it provides not only solid music from DSO, Hot Tuna and other friends, but serves as a tropical escape from the cold weather of late January.
“This will be our fourth or fifth, or even sixth time doing it,” English said. “That’s been a nice yearly thing to look forward to as well … people always have a good time there, and we always have a good time. It’s put on by a great bunch of people — Cameron Sears from the Grateful Dead management puts it on. We’re always psyched about that one.”
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments for a band that just wanted to jam on some Dead tunes 20 years ago.
Another tradition DSO has started is its yearly Thanksgiving Eve party at Penn’s Peak, which will be in its 12th year this time around. Since 2005, the band has played nearly every period from the Dead catalogue including late 60’s, the single drummer early 70’s, the heralded mid/late 70’s juggernauts, the stadium shows of the late 80’s and, arguably the Dead’s last powerful era, 1991 to 1993.
Mix in a few DSO elective shows — where the band will not recreate a show, but instead will jam on whatever Dead songs they want (as was the case at Peach Fest this past Summer) — and it’s anyone’s guess as to what this year’s show will entail. Ultimately, Eaton puts together the setlists by reviewing the band’s last few stops at the venue, so even his bandmates don’t know what they will be playing until the day of show.
“Well, the last two times we played there, we did a 1976 show and a 1988 show, so it will be something other than that,” English said about the mystery surrounding the performance.
As far as the Thanksgiving Eve tradition goes, English feels that the people who have continuously come out to their shows along with the beauty and laid-back appeal of Penn’s Peak has helped turn the stop into something the band genuinely looks forward to seeing on their itinerary every year.
“It’s something we really look forward to,” he said. “We always love playing the Peak — it’s another one of those places that’s just got a special vibe to it. We just really enjoy playing there because it’s always a good time. Generally speaking, our shows turn out to be really good there. Hopefully, we’ll continue on with that tradition this time through.”
IF YOU GO
What: Dark Star Orchestra
Where: Penn’s Peak, 325 Maury Road, Jim Thorpe
When: 8 p.m. today
Additional information: General admission tickets cost $32 and are available at the Penn’s Peak box office, online at ticketmaster.com or by phone at 800-745-3000.