When the Grateful Dead is brought up, it’s usually either followed by a roll of the eyes or some form of excitement and respect. The band’s magnetism became a cultural movement, but at its core, it was the music that spoke to people. Recreating different Grateful Dead shows each night, Dark Star Orchestra is most likely the closest you will come to the original Grateful Dead spirit in a small venue. IN pulled drummer Dino English away from zero degree Wisconsin weather to chat about why the music remains such a force in the world today.
IN: What is it about the Grateful Dead that makes its music so timeless and worthy of such dedication from a band like yours?
ENGLISH: The way they encompass so many styles of mostly American music. Rock and roll, country, R&B, funk, bluegrass, fusion. They were one of the first bands to bring the free form jazz structure into a rock and roll setting. People could hear it all. It also opens people up to other kinds of music. People who wouldn’t necessarily like a type of music would be exposed to it for the first time at Grateful Dead shows. It can really change whatever path you’re on musically
IN: What was your personal journey in discovering the Grateful Dead?
ENGLISH: It happened that first show—6/24/91. I’m the baby Deadhead of the band. I had friends that could travel to see them and begged me to come with them. They’d play me tapes, but I just didn’t get it until I caught the whole live experience. It was an eye opener. It all made sense after that.
IN: Would you still be playing music if it weren’t for the Grateful Dead?
ENGLISH: Yeah. I studied music in college and was focusing on original music. I played in an original band on the weekends and on weekdays played Grateful Dead music for fun with the locals. We did that until Jerry [Garcia] died. A lot of people flocked to what we were doing, so we started taking it more seriously from then on.
IN: A lot of people are turned off as soon as they hear the phrase “cover band.” How do you deal with that?
ENGLISH: Word of mouth. It’s only the quality of the music that’s getting people to our shows. As long as we keep on playing well, that’s all we can do. We don’t really consider ourselves to be a tribute band. We see ourselves carrying on the music. We’re not actors.
IN: How do you choose what Grateful Dead show you’re going to recreate each night?
ENGLISH: We look at what we’ve done in the past in the same area and we try to mix it up from that. Size of the stage matters some, too. It takes a lot to do an ‘80s show because of The Beast drums and the organ takes up a lot of space. We also avoid repeats from the previous night of music we played.
IN: Once you’ve decided on the show, how does the band prepare for it?
ENGLISH: Sometimes we listen together, sometimes we don’t. We’ve done it so many times that we’re familiar with the arrangements, but we listen to a portion of the show either together or alone. That’s usually the day of the show.
IN: How do you balance reproducing each night’s particular Grateful Dead show and putting your own spin on it?
ENGLISH: It’s very much open to interpretation. We just listen for arrangements, harmony, melody, and any different tones that were being produced in the years of that original show. The improvisation is all us. We don’t copy jams. We are producing live, breathing music up there.
IN: How has the band transitioned once founding member and lead guitarist John Kadlecik moved on to play with Furthur [current band of Grateful Dead founding members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir]?
ENGLISH: It’s an incredible opportunity for John to play with our musical heroes, and it’s been great for us as well. [New lead guitarist] Jeff Mattson has stepped into that slot seamlessly. It’s also drawn people to us that have previously written us off. If the people that started this music grabbed somebody from the band, then you have to wonder what’s going on with the rest of us.
IN: You had [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh sit in with you recently. How did that come about?
ENGLISH: It was amazing. Most of the guys have played with us before, but Phil had been the only one that hadn’t. Words don’t do it justice. It was a pinnacle moment in my lifetime.
IN: How far in advance are things like that planned?
ENGLISH: Rob Barraco, our keyboard player, was a part of the Phil Lesh Quintet. They were doing some reunion shows at Phil’s new place Terrapin Crossroads, and Rob approached him with the idea. When the time comes around, you never know if they’re going to feel like getting out in the city that night, so you have to keep the possibility under wraps. We were supposed to go on at nine that night. At 8:58 p.m., Phil shows up at the door ready to go. He ended up sitting in on the entire set.
IN: Personally, what is your favorite year or era of Grateful Dead music? 1977 has it all for me.
ENGLISH: Great year. At first, the ‘80s would’ve been my pick, but as I’ve studied the music, I’ve grown to love all the periods of time. Most recently, I’ve grown a fondness for the ‘60s shows. I wasn’t really into them at first because it was so hard to get quality recordings.
IN: Are those ‘60s shows difficult to reproduce or recreate because of the raw, brunt force and psychedelic quality behind them?
ENGLISH: It takes a different approach, that’s for sure. They were kids at the time, barely in their 20s, so there’s a youthful, reckless abandon you have to capture.
Photo: Suzy Perler