Come without any preconceived notions,” suggests Dark Star Orchestra rhythm guitarist and vocalist Rob Eaton, concerning his band’s upcoming performance at The Canopy Club. That might be hard for those who are familiar with the DSO’s aesthetics: the group plays the music of the Grateful Dead, usually relying on a setlist from a Grateful Dead show as a guide, though it’s not fully a science nor an art solely of recreation.
“You can’t recreate a concert; it happened in a space and a time. The music itself was created in an improvisational space and has to stay that way,” Eaton notes. He plays the parts once belonging to Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and is surprisingly convincing both instrumentally and vocally in his role, though he brushes off the suggestion that he impersonates Weir. Rather, one could say that he came about his role naturally: at the age of 12, Eaton discovered the Dead’s now classic three-record set Europe ’72, which details the band’s said tour.
“Soon, I said, ‘That’s the kind of guitar I want to play.’ It’s ‘lead rhythm,’ and for me, that’s much more fun playing than even the lead guitar.” Our conversation, however, avoids dwelling on the mechanics of Dark Star’s music, nearly indistinguishable from the original and focuses more on aesthetics.
It’s hard for some to imagine, though, that the reinterpretation of the Dead would allow for the group to be anything but a cover band.
“It would take me a lifetime to learn all the notes in a single show,” Eaton notes. Ignoring that physical and mental limit, outside material is essential to the Grateful Dead experience.
“The Grateful Dead were the original cover band, pulling maybe 50 percent of their material from other sources. Throughout the previous century, jazz musicians have used older material in their sets, referring to the pieces with the positively-connotated term ‘standard.'”
“It’s only a problem when people try to make it a problem. It’s about pure emotion -that’s what the music is based off of and where the improvisations come from. If the music moves you, it doesn’t matter where it came from. Really, if you think about music too much you miss it.”
DSO makes music “in the spirit” of the original, but Eaton mentions that it’s not just a tribute but a band making their own music in the here and now.
“It’s more about us than them.”
Despite that, there’s a lot of cultural baggage fans might bring to a show, something Eaton encourages.
“The function we provide is a way to reminisce with yourself and to remember why you chose what you did-it’s a huge cultural thing in the lives of a lot of people. We get everyone together in the same space -we’re just a piece. Music is the catalyst, but it’s about the community.”
“Some of the best compliments the Orchestra has received have come from people involved with the Grateful Dead themselves,” says Eaton. The band has played with, among others, original drummer Bill Kreutzman, Bob Weir and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, who remarked, according to Eaton, “When I’m standing on stage, and I’m feeling the energy, it’s the same feeling I had with the Dead.”
The Dark Star Orchestra appear at The Canopy Club next Tuesday. The show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15.