Dark Star Orchestra
Reanimating The Dead
By Jack Miller
Rob Barraco has played keyboards for Phil Lesh and Friends, The Dead, The Other Ones, Chris Robinson & New Earth Mud, and since 2005 he’s been an official member of Dark Star Orchestra, the most accurate Grateful Dead tribute band there ever was. The group is currently celebrating its 15th anniversary, and Barraco couldn’t be happier with the quality of the music it’s producing. They play the Dome at the Oakdale on Friday, December 7th.
“Right now the band is playing at a really high level and we’re constantly raising the bar for ourselves,” he says. “We’re taking the music into new directions and we’re trying to live “Being the Moment” — having that as our mantra. Let it go where it needs to go and don’t worry about trying to be exact. You start thinking that way and, it’s not fun first of all, but also it’s not going to happen.”
Barraco began playing with DSO part time following the death of original keyboardist Scott Larned in 2005, splitting his time between Phil’s projects and the group until he was offered the full-time position.
“It made more sense to me than anything else,” he says. “Phil, at that time, was very fickle about what he wanted to do, and I’ve got to make a living, so it turned out to be the best move for me.”
No bridges were burned in the process, however. Phil respected Barraco’s decision and still occasionally invites him to play, which he’ll be doing in December when he reunites with the Phil Lesh Quintet, a.k.a. “The Q” — an all-star band consisting of himself, Phil Lesh, drummer John Molo of the Allman Brothers Band and guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. In fact, Barraco isn’t going to make it to the Oakdale show as a result of the Q reunion. Furthur keybordist Jeff Chimenti will be filling in for DSO.
“It’s always an honor, and it’s extremely adventurous,” he says. “The two of us have a rapport that’s gone back quite a while.”
Back to 1999, that is. Barraco remembers what it was like the very first time the pair played together.
“I was absolutely shaking in my boots, but he was so disarming that I wasn’t nervous for very long,” he says. “And then we started playing and I got nervous again, but we started jamming and the shit just started happening. You don’t have time to be nervous, you’ve got to react. It’s a whole different ballgame when you’ve spent your whole life listening to someone play and then all of a sudden you’re thrown into the mix playing with them. There’s no time to be afraid.”
Phil returned the favor just last month, sitting in with DSO for the first time for an entire set at the Fillmore in San Francisco on October 13th. (The soundboard recording is available for free download on archive.org.)
“What a trip that was,” says Barraco. “It was really wonderful. He was just a member of the band for the set, and he really played his ass off and brought the best out of all of us.
DSO recreates Dead shows by taking existing song-for-song setlists from Grateful Dead history, and then playing them using rough approximations of the sounds from the era the show was played in. Rhythm guitar player Rob Eaton (DSO’s Bob Weir) figures out what setlists to play.
“It’s a pretty arduous task,” says Barraco. “I would never want to do it. But he’s great at it. He picks great shows and we’re really fortunate to have someone willing to go the extra mile.”
Barraco barely noticed that it was DSO’s 15th anniversary.
“I was oblivious,” he says. “It was like the 10th anniversary yesterday. Time just cranks man, it really does. Each year that goes by for me goes by way too quickly. Then I look back at the number of shows I’ve played and I can’t believe it.”
As for Barraco’s personal favorite era of the Dead? That’d have to be 1972,.
“The whole Europe deal,” he says. “I saw my first show, the last show in New York before they went to Europe. 3-28-72. I got to see Pigpen once. From when Keith joined in October of ’71 to the show at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh on September 27, ’72 they were speaking this other language, it’s tremendous how they’ve grown in a year. [Editor’s note: The Stanley Theatre show was actually in Jersey City.] I’m constantly blown away. It never ceases to amaze me.”