Dark Star Orchestra is one of the best-known Grateful Dead tribute bands in the country. But when you play other people's music every night, finding ways to keep things interesting becomes a new kind of challenge.
So we have Dark Star's new project. The band is staging the "From a City Near You" tour, in which they will play the entire setlist from a past Dead show in the city or state where DSO performs for their show in Tempe, fans could hear a Dead set from somewhere in Phoenix. Or maybe one of the shows from the legendary Compton Terrace Amphitheater, a now-defunct venue with incarnations in Tempe and Chandler that housed Dead shows from the early '80s to the early '90s.
It was the next logical step for Dark Star, says drummer Rob Koritz.
Dark Star Orchestra is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, December 8, at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe.
"Since our inception . . . the majority of our performances have been actual Grateful Dead setlists. There [have] been times in the past where we matched up the date of the show," he says. "We're trying to figure out some new twists to keep it fresh and have some fun, and to maybe pique the interest of the crowd. Maybe it'll help us sell some tickets."
Another gimmick: The band is keeping the details on which show they'll be replicating a secret until the concert.
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"If people figure it out on their own while we're playing, that's great," Koritz says. "But we don't actually announce which show we played until the show is over. Let 'em keep guessing. Back when we first started, people would try to guess what [show we'd played]. And now it's lost a little bit of that mystique because of the technology that's out there now. People can turn on their smart phones, and after the first few songs, they can go online right there in the concert and figure out what show we're playing, so they'll know the rest of the setlist. And if they wanna do that, that's great. But we're not gonna tell them."
But finding new ways to reinvent music from a band with a cult following of completists and die-hards ain't easy. Luckily, with the Dead, there's plenty of room for alterations and improvisation. Though Dark Star prides itself on accuracy, allowing flexibility (in the spirit of the Dead, of course) helps keep them from getting stagnant.
"First and foremost, it is not note for note. That would be impossible. And second of all, it would defeat the purpose of what the Grateful Dead's music is all about. [It's] all based on spontaneity and improvisation, and you never know where it's gonna go. The improvisation when we're on stage is still all us," he says. "The details that we pay attention to, of course, are the setlists. And, then, beyond that, the tempos and the arrangements, the groove of that night, the particular rhythmic way they're playing the songs, the tones of the instruments, and the instruments we play on a given night. Those are really the details that we use as our framework. And the improvisation is us, inside that."
You have to appreciate a tribute band that finds ways to reinvent its shows each night. You may not become a Dead convert if you were never a fan of the hippie jam band's sound in the first place. But for those who come to see DSO, it may be for reasons other than simply nostalgia.