There are an estimated 300 Grateful Dead tribute bands (by one website's account), including the Tempe-based Xtra Ticket. But of all those bands, only Dark Star Orchestra actually play the Dead.
Let us be a little clearer. DSO picks a Grateful Dead show from a list of thousands spanning the Dead's 40-plus-year career -- that's a hell of a lot of shows! -- listens to them (almost everything the Dead did is archived) and then performs that set list. The band always brings in the right equipment -- organs or pianos, percussion instruments, the "Donna" singer, etc. to get the feel as right as the songs. Yet, DSO doesn't try to emulate the concert note for note, but rather puts its take on the show. Having studied the Dead for so many years and having performed over 2,000 concerts, DSO accurately captures the feel and intensity that was the Grateful Dead. This is as close to the real thing as it gets.
With all those concerts, however, Dark Star, like the Grateful Dead themselves, rarely play acoustic sets. The Grateful Dead did some long acoustic-show runs in the early 1980s in New York and San Francisco, with scattered sets before and after, so it was always a special occasion when the boys unplugged.
For their April Fool's Day set at the Musical Instrument Museum, DSO goes acoustic in what is an even rarer occasion for them. How they handle "Monkey and the Engineer" or "Casey Jones" all depends on which historic show they select.
Up on the Sun caught up with Dark Star Orchestra drummer Dino English to get his take on the acoustic tour, the challenges and adjustments needed to play acoustic, and a hint at what the Phoenix show might entail.
Up on the Sun: To begin, what is your role in the band, and how long have you been doing it?
Dino English: I am one of two drummers in the band, stage right. I primarily fulfill the same musical roll as Bill Kreutzmann fulfilled in the Grateful Dead, laying down a nice backbeat that hopefully will inspire people to dance or at least connect emotionally to the music. I've played in Dark Star Orchestra for almost 14 years.
DSO has played hundreds of shows. How rare a gig is it when you get to play acoustic?
We are quickly approaching 2,200 shows played. I'd say we average roughly one acoustic show a tour. This tour, we will be doing two. I would think that the opportunity to play acoustic would be a nice break, something different?
It is a nice change of pace. Actually, our whole presentation is geared toward being a nice change of pace from night to night. We take a different approach to playing Grateful Dead music on a night-to-night basis, and playing acoustic is another notch in our belt of possibilities for any given show. With every different approach or era we play comes a fresh perspective. That keeps it fun for us to play and fun for the audience to follow along as we morph into a different sound from night to night.
For us drummers, playing acoustic means paring down to kick, snare (played most often with brushes), conga drum, and various percussion (instruments). Playing acoustic brings up different gems that we don't play electric. The gigs tend to be a little less formal (if that's possible) in that the guitarists sit and relax and share a few stories or banter between band and audience. Nick Tiano, our stage manager, has affectionately named it "stools and stories" night. Are there any special nuances to the Dead's acoustic playing that make it more challenging to remake an acoustic Dead show?
Yes, for all of us it's different; it's an adjustment. We obviously play more quietly, so there is a dynamic change. When we are electric, you have the instances of the whole band slamming as hard as we can while still maintaining the groove, going for the big moment. I look at it as sort of a big band "shout section" where you have all the horns blowing. Playing acoustic is all about dynamics, maintaining the intensity, but doing it more subtly.
Playing actual Grateful Dead shows acoustic is interesting for us as far as drummers in that in 1980 you had good recordings, which makes it easy to hear what they actually played and they would switch off every couple of songs between who would play the conga and who would play brushes on a snare. When we do the 1970 acoustic shows, they didn't have the microphone technique down for the drums as well. Sometimes it sounds like there is no mic on at all. Other times you can hear them playing with sticks. Many times, it sounds like just one drummer is playing and at other times no drumming at all. We tend to approach this era with a little more leeway because we can't hear exactly what was going on. In all cases, the most important thing to do is create a good feel for that moment we are playing live.
Is there any more of a challenge playing acoustic shows when considering how infrequently you do them?
I think we just drop into it honestly. It's not a real struggle. As long as we get our sound dialed in so we can all hear each other, which can take a few songs, we are good to go. The Grateful Dead didn't do a ton of acoustic sets -- there was the run in the early 1980s, and a scattered few in the earlier days of the band. Since DSO doesn't play the same show twice, how many acoustic shows do you have left to chose from?
We actually do play shows more than once. We have played virtually all of '72, '73, '74, '76, '77, and '78, so unless we want to stop doing these era shows, which we don't want to do, we have to repeat. We do like to play unplayed shows as much as possible, though, and still maintain our regular rotation of eras throwing in our own elective set lists every third or fourth show. We quite often do our own acoustic set lists.
I know a lot of people have fun at DSO shows trying to figure out which show you're playing. Any hint to what we might get in Phoenix?
A hint is in a comment above.
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Dark Star Orchestra is scheduled to perform Monday, April 1, at the Musical Instrument Museum.