Like many Grateful Dead fans, Rob Barraco has been a devoted Deadhead since his teenager years. It’s safe to say the versatile keyboardist has found the perfect gig as a member of Dark Star Orchestra. Since forming in 1997, the lauded tribute act has earned its own legion of fans for spot-on re-creations of entire Dead shows.
Across nearly two decades of hard touring, Dark Star has played an astounding 2,200 shows, mostly song-by-song reboots from the Dead’s extensive set list archive. With precise attention to detail and an adventurous penchant for improvisation, the band has been highly praised for its ability to channel the Dead’s original pedigree.
Barraco, who joined DSO seven years ago, brings experience straight from the source. He’s toured with Grateful Dead member offshoots (the group disbanded following the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia), including The Other Ones, The Dead, and the Phil Lesh Quintet. Barraco chatted with C-Ville Weekly ahead of Dark Star’s Thursday night (December 5) return to The Jefferson Theater.
C-Ville Weekly: Set the record straight on Dark Star’s approach, comparing re-creation vs. reinvention.
Rob Barraco: We look at it like we’re given a blueprint. Let’s say we decide to recreate a ’77 show. We have the set list and we know the arrangements of the songs and the instrumentation of that era. We’re pretty picky, right down to the guitars, amps, and stage set up. We’re true to those parameters, but after that, it’s all improvised. All of the jams go where they go, and how we get to the next song is a mystery.
Every three or four shows we decide to do an elective set, which is our own, and when we do that we’ll cross eras. You might get a Pigpen [Ron McKernan, Grateful Dead keyboardist between 1965 and 1972] tune and a Brent Mydland [keyboardist between 1979 and 1990] song in the same show.
In the Grateful Dead’s 30 years, the sound changed from decade to decade. How do you adapt on a nightly basis?
For me in particular as the keyboard player I have to wear six different hats. You start with Pigpen and also have to include [additional Dead keyboardists] Tom Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Brent, Vince Welnick, and Bruce Hornsby—a lot of different guys that I have to emulate. They have completely different personalities when it comes to playing and singing. I’ve become familiar with the different ways that they each play, so I can adapt to it. I’ve always prided myself on being my own guy, playing the way I play. But I know how to make it work for each different era.
What first drew you to the Dead’s music, and what keeps it interesting after all these years?
I was 14 the first time I heard the Dead via a friend of mine playing “Casey Jones” on an acoustic guitar. All of the sudden the Grateful Dead was part of my world and I noticed it everywhere. My cousin gave me a copy of Workingman’s Dead, and I wore the grooves out of it. Then I cajoled my parents into letting me a see a show in New York City in March of 1972, and it was mind-altering. Within 20 seconds I became a lifelong fan. I love the improvisatory nature of the music, much like the jazz music that I also really appreciate. In many ways you get on stage and make the damn thing up.
You played with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in his quintet that also featured guitarists Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring. How would you describe playing in a band with one of your longtime idols?
Playing with Phil and listening to him are two different animals. You don’t have the luxury of judging, you have to react. The first time we played together at a rehearsal, he got a whole different side out of my playing. I could tell that we saw music the same way. In the Q [Quintet], he never wanted us to sound like the Grateful Dead. He wanted us to be ourselves, and we took the songs to nutty, out there places. That band was about mining the nooks and crannies of songs, as well as the spaces between. We still get together and play at least once a year.
How do you approach it when a member of the Grateful Dead plays with Dark Star?
The hope is that they will come and embrace what we do—just be a member of the band. When Bob [Weir] sat in with us at the Fillmore in San Francisco, he really didn’t lead the band. He just kind of played. Phil also joined us at the Fillmore [on a different night], and it was monumental. In all of the years I had played with him, he was always the leader, but he [too] just came out and played in the band. Real magic happened.
Is there a favorite Dead show that you saw live, and have you played it with Dark Star Orchestra?
September 27, 1972, at the Stanley Theater [in New Jersey], and we have played it once. To me it’s the pinnacle of the band. At that point their connection is so deep. The first time I heard it I was blown out of my socks.