VAIL, Colorado --Dark Star Orchestra's rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton equates planning the band's set lists for its upcoming tour to playing with a Rubik's Cube. But instead of matching up the colors, Eaton is lining up the perfect show.
Dark Star Orchestra is a Grateful Dead spirit band. It's not a cover band, nor is it a tribute band. Dark Star does not play a concert note for note, either, a common misconception, Eaton says.
"Transcribing a 3 1/2 hour show for everyone, every instrument would be completely counterproductive to the Dead's music, which is based on old-school fundamentals of jazz, improvisation," Eaton says. "We go out there and just play it with no preconceived notion on how it's supposed to be done."
Eaton does, however, pick out a different set list for every Dark Star show, either based on a historic Grateful Dead set (May 5, 1977) or a set list that Dark Star creates on its own. This is where the musical Rubik's Cube comes into play.
"There's a lot of criteria to how we figure out what we are going to play," Eaton says. "We've played the Vilar Center twice, for example. Once we played a set list from 1984 and last year we did our own set list. We won't do either of those two type of shows this time to keep it interesting for the people who see it and keep it fresh for us."
Eaton, who lives in West Vail, charts the whole tour in this meticulous manner. He looks back five years to see exactly what Dark Star played in each particular venue and then devises or picks a no-repeat set list. He uses DeadBase - a definitive set list catalog (as well as the name for the press that prints it) - as a reference. But even if Dark Star knows what songs the Grateful Dead played, when and where, the band still doesn't know how the song was played. This is how Dark Star applies the Dead's philosophy and infuses the music with their own unique improvisational style and talent.
Jerry Garcia would have been proud. The Grateful Dead - who during its 30-year career performed for more people than any other band in history - was famous for its original, off-the-cuff jams, so much that the fans were famous for following the band from show to show. No one wanted to miss the concert where it all happened.
"You checked everything at the door when you went to a Dead show. Your sexual orientation, your political affiliation, because it didn't matter," Eaton says. "When people came together and the music came together it created this energy that you could cut with a knife it was so thick. Dead Heads who followed the band through the years did it because of the feeling they got from the shows. They couldn't get it anywhere else."
Including Garcia's solo projects, Eaton has seen 400 shows. The numbers may be different, but the same goes for Eaton's band mates - they're dedicated fans.
"Basically, we are a hodgepodge of Dead Heads from all over the country who have a passion for this music and the aptitude to play it," Eaton says.
Joining Eaton on rhythm guitar are Dino English on drums, Rob Koritz on drums, Lisa Makey on vocals, Kevin Rosen on bass, Rob Barraco on keyboards/vocals and Stu Allen on lead guitar. Allen, who's best known for his work with Melvin Seals, Garcia's keyboardist for many of his side projects, replaces interim guitarist Jeff Mattson, who replaced Dark Star's original guitarist, John Kadlecik. Kadlecik resigned from the band to play with two founding members of the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.
Dark Star Orchestra never reveals the set list until after the show, but Eaton says that fans might gather hints from the props on stage. If there is a vocal mic set up for a female singer, for example, you might be able to guess the year in a three-and-a-half year window. Or, if there is only one drum kit on stage, or a Hammond B3 organ, these items might lend a clue, too.
"If you have a scholarly aptitude for the historical aspect of Grateful Dead lore, then you would be able to see where we're headed with the set list," Eaton says. "And we have a very special set list planned for the Vilar Center."
Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail.
What: Dark Star Orchestra.
Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, Beaver Creek.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
More information: Call 970-845-TIXS or visit www.vilarpac.org