Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra plays Vilar Center, March 1 | VailDaily.com

Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra plays Vilar Center, March 1

John O’Neill
Special to the Daily

On Wednesday, the 535-seat Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek will be chipped free from reality and carried off in time and space by the improvisational rock of Dark Star Orchestra, the world's pre-eminent Grateful Dead tribute act.

Dark Star Orchestra, a seven-member band that formed in 1997, two years after the death of Grateful Dead guitarist, singer and songwriter Jerry Garcia, is acclaimed not as a cover band, but an act that resurrects the energy of the Grateful Dead by playing music in the spirit by which it was created, said Rob Eaton, Dark Star Orchestra's rhythm guitarist and Vail resident.

"First and foremost, the important thing to remember is that we are just Deadheads," Eaton said of him and his fellow band members. "All of us in the band weren't set in motion to learn the music and do this. It was set in motion because of our love of the music."

From the 1960s to 1995, the Grateful Dead created country, bluesy, folkish songs that could easily pass time as they could stand the test of it. "Deadheads," whose sobriquet draws on loyalties to the band's live performances, followed the music with near ceremonious dedication.

“Playing with Dark Star Orchestra is something that feels just exactly like it felt when I was playing with the Grateful Dead.”

— Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay, Grateful Dead vocalist, 1972-1979“Fanatical attention to detail.”

— Rolling Stone“In fact, Dark Star Orchestra often sounds more like the Dead than the Dead sometimes did.”

— Chicago Tribune

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"When it was good, it was better than any drug you could ever take," Eaton said of the Grateful Dead's live shows. "You felt the purity of the music and the connection it made between everyone there. You could see the thickness of energy in the air. It was palpable. The band feels the crowd, and the crowd feels the band."

When Garcia died, the emotional bridge that floated head-high around crowds across the country suddenly disappeared. The band crumbled into its recordings, leaving only memories of iconic shows to hang like artwork in the hallways of Deadheads' hearts.

"What I loved about a Grateful Dead show is that it was inclusive, the common thread was the music," Eaton said. "You could be gay, straight, black, white, Hebrew, Muslim, Jewish — it didn't matter. Everything got checked at the door. No boundaries existed in the moments of time at the concert. Outside of that environment, I'm not so sure that exists in our society."

Dark Star Orchestra

Today, Dark Star Orchestra strives to re-create through its music the discernible connection between everyone in the room. To be clear, these are not copycat performances. Something about that would be inherently flawed, as there is raw impossibility in covering a band that rarely, if ever, played the same song twice.

Dark Star's performances are built on the Dead's extensive catalog from 30 years of touring. The band members also create their own set lists based on a certain era of the Dead. The formula allows Deadheads an opportunity at nostalgia while introducing younger fans to one of the world's all-time great musical acts.

"It is all improvisation and believing and feeling what we are doing," Eaton said. "Even if we are playing a specific set, all I know about the set list is that I'm staying true to the arrangement of that era in history or having a fundamental understanding of where their head was at."

It is all about that feeling, a fleeting moment Deadheads describe as a time in the concert "when it all comes together."

"You went to (Grateful Dead) shows because it was spiritually enlightening," Eaton said. "I didn't ever want to miss the one where it all came together. I don't think anyone ever stopped seeking that. Every time we (Dark Star Orchestra) go out on stage, we pull in to that. We don't ever strop trying to outdo ourselves or outdo our feelings for the music."

Currently, Dark Star Orchestra is in its 20th year and has played more than 2,600 shows. All the band members are between 55 and 65 years old, authentic to the Deadhead generation. Together, they've revitalized the inclusiveness of a Grateful Dead concert — the minute you walk through the door, you realize that everyone is there for the same thing.

Playing with emotion

Eaton played his first show with the Dark Star Orchestra on Dec. 13, 1999, two years after the band had formed. At the time, he was living in New York and producing albums. Dark Star Orchestra was around but hadn't achieved its worldwide acclaim or its endorsement from living band members of the Grateful Dead, which it now has.

Eaton's invitation to play with the band came with no offer of money. Rather, it was the enticing idea of connecting with fans the way the Dead got him on stage.

"Music, to me, is pure emotion," Eaton said. "The beauty of music and of great artists is the ability to allow their emotional feeling and content to travel through their instrument into the audience in a way that made them feel the same way."

All of Dark Star Orchestra's music, despite being inspired by the Grateful Dead, is an informed improvisation.

"I get myself to a place I dig," Eaton said. "In doing that, I'm hoping someone else is digging it, too. I put myself in a place where my emotion is being played through my instrument and that love is getting felt somewhere else. Even if it taps into 5 percent of what the Dead felt, that is great."

If you go…

What: Dark Star Orchestra.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 1.

Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, 68 Avondale Lane, Beaver Creek.

Cost: $38.

More information: Tickets are available now at the VPAC box office, by calling 970-845-8497 or at http://www.vilarpac.org.