Andrew Zaleski>Junior>English>Loyola University Maryland
Sublime has Badfish. Nirvana has Nevermind. And for more than 10 years, Dark Star Orchestra has toured the United States, powering through chords at such venues as The Fillmore in San Francisco and the stages of Bonnaroo, all in musical homage to legendary psychedelic rock outfit the Grateful Dead.
But don’t call them a cover band.
“I don’t like to use the word cover band,” says DSO drummer, Rob Koritz. “I would use the term ‘tribute.’”
Formed in 1997, Dark Star was originally the brainchild of guitarist John Kadlecik and keyboardist Scott Larned. Both “Deadheads” had the idea separately to perform complete Grateful Dead shows. After a series of successful shows at a Chicago pub in November of that year, DSO hit the road. To date, the 7-member band has performed more than 1,600 shows worldwide.
“It’s the hardest easy job in the world,” says Koritz, who joined the band in 1999. “We don’t get paid a lot, but we do get paid to travel the country and play music.”
Channeling the spirit of the Grateful Dead, whose 11 members combined elements of folk, jazz, country, bluegrass, rock, and blues music, DSO’s live shows recreate such classic Dead songs as “Sitting On Top of the World” and “Run for the Roses,” utilizing two drummers, keyboards, several guitars and a vocal medley to create a sound they classify as part jam band, part classic rock and part psychedelic. Like the original Grateful Dead, Dark Star’s music relies primarily on improvisation, wowing crowds with their interplay of melodies and intricate compositions.
“We’re lucky that the Grateful Dead’s music was based on improvisation,” says Koritz. “For us, it’s different every night. I look at it as performance art: they gave us a repertoire and we go out there and interpret it.”
Their live shows have earned Dark Star Orchestra critical acclaim from Rolling Stone, the Associated Press and The Washington Post, not to mention a following that spans generations, from teenagers who never saw the Grateful Dead perform to people in their sixties who were around for the entirety of the Grateful Dead’s 30-year touring life.
Earning that acclaim, though, was tough for DSO in the beginning, as they fought against being viewed merely as a cover band.
“When I think of a cover band, I think of day-job guys who are playing in a bar in their home town on a Friday night,” says Koritz. “Especially early on, there was a big stigma [against DSO].”
As time passed, and as Dark Star landed bigger gigs, including shows at big festivals like All Good and 10,000 Lakes, popular opinion began to shift, according to Koritz.
“As time goes on, people see what you’re doing and hear you play and they see that you’re good musicians. Once people come and see us, they walk away thinking a little differently.”
It’s a sense that has permeated not only their fan base, but also the wider music community, as DSO has shared the stage with Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman of Phish, the Jerry Garcia Band (Garcia was a founding member of the Grateful Dead), and other former members of Grateful Dead, including Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay.
“That’s just like, ultimate validation,” says Koritz.
This New Year’s, Dark Star Orchestra is playing back-to-back shows at Rams Head Live! in Baltimore. On December 30, they’ll be joined by the Donna Jean band. On New Year’s Eve, D.C. band The Bridge will play before DSO takes the stage. Both shows begin at 8 p.m.
“It’s rock and country and jazz and blues and roots,” says Koritz. “The Grateful Dead covered every genre. There’s something in it for everybody. You might not like everything, but there’s something in there you’re going to like.”