A Dark Star Orchestra show is something like a hippy time-machine.
Close your eyes at one of their performances and you might feel like you're actually at a Grateful Dead concert with Jerry Garcia's beard swaying in the summer breeze and the faint odor of patchouli hanging in the air.
The Dark Star Orchestra isn't just another Grateful Dead tribute band, they are pretty much "the" Grateful Dead tribute band. Given the dedication that the members of Dark Star Orchestra have to the Dead's music, it's really no surprise.
"It's a privilege to be able to play the music to begin with, you know, and I enjoy the music so ... it's not work to play it," said Rob Eaton, rhythm guitar and vocals for DSO and Vail resident since 2001.
Most famous for its re-creations of actual Grateful Dead concerts, Dark Star Orchestra often plays exact Dead set lists with the same instruments and props used during those shows. Eaton said that a common misconception about DSO, however, is that they play the songs exactly the same way the Dead did during their shows, which isn't true. According to Eaton there is just no way to copy the Grateful Dead's already improv-heavy music note for note.
Instead, the members of DSO are like children running around the fenced-in yard created by a Dead show. Within those fences there are no rules, only chances to insert their own creative take on the Dead's music. Because the Grateful Dead's career lasted 30 years, Dark Star Orchestra has no lack of material to choose from, either.
"There's a huge amount of leeway for interpretation and improvisation amongst the context of what we're doing. I think it wouldn't be fun for us to do this this long if there wasn't. There is no one way to play anything and there's no rule about how to play anything, so pretty much you can do what you want," Eaton said.
That's not to say that sometimes Dark Star Orchestra won't take the stage without a set-list to freshen things up a bit. Eaton said he enjoys those shows the most because nobody in the band has any expectations and the audience won't be able to tell which direction the show is headed. Eaton believes it's this kind of instant musical communication that has kept the band around so long, often playing to sold-out crowds.
The understanding that each member of Dark Star Orchestra has of the music they play allows the audience to appreciate them that much more. For many fans, this is as close to the Grateful Dead as they will ever come.
"We go out there and put our hearts and souls into what we do and lay it all out there and, you know, people can take what they want from it," Eaton said.
It must get boring playing the same band's music over and over again every night of your life, right? Not so, said Eaton, who clearly finds enough new ways to approach the music to keep it from getting stale. Basically, even if DSO were to play the same set list every night they could make each night's show sound different. Like jazz, by nature the Dead's music lends itself to heavy changes while keeping the same loose structure.
Just how much like the Grateful Dead does Dark Star Orchestra want to be though?
They tour constantly " just like the Dead " playing an average of 160 shows a year and they've racked up over 1,500 shows since they came together a decade ago. But the sacrifices DSO makes "touring on a bus away from family" is worth it to Eaton, who enjoys spreading the Dead's gospel. The peaceful nature of the Dead's music is a huge part of the band's staying power today and the reason it took root so easily in the hippy sub-culture of its time. Eaton said that the rest of the world can use more of the "love-thy-brother mentality" that the Dead promoted.
So what does the Grateful Dead's music mean to Eaton?
"It moves me. It moves me emotionally and I think music is supposed to, you know. If you can move somebody and move yourself by hearing or feeling music, than that's a pretty cool thing," Eaton said.
High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.