When it comes to the psychedelic rock scene, The Grateful Dead is the first band that comes to mind. In its heyday, the group solidified itself as one of the most successful and beloved jam-band acts of all time.
So it comes as no surprise that cover bands would spring up, wishing to recreate the songs of such a legendary group.
The most notable of these acts is Dark Star Orchestra, which has been recreating The Grateful Dead experience for more than 14 years. The group will come to the 9:30 Club in Washington tomorrow and Saturday.
Dark Star has flourished in part thanks to its talent and critical acclaim but mostly from residual “Deadheads” seeking out the trademark Grateful Dead atmosphere, which is an integral part of the experience.
“Back in college, my friends were trying to turn me onto the Dead and, to me, it sounded sloppy,” Dino English, the band’s drummer, said. “I just didn’t get it until my friends dragged me out to see a show. When it is live you get it, and The Grateful Dead songs are so well-crafted that you can’t help but love them.”
Becoming a successful band is a difficult task itself, but covering the work of one of the most popular bands of all time can test even the most skilled musicians.
Most recognizable bands from the classic rock era have either broken up or quit touring altogether. However, as the band members have aged, many acts have reunited for whirlwind tours that are reinvigorating the classic rock scene.
With so many acts taking the stage again, what chance does a cover band stand against the real McCoy?
This is a question that Dark Star Orchestra has been trying to answer for the past year.
“These bands coming back together is great, but it makes things harder for groups like us,” English said. “It just means we have to work harder to try to make a name for ourselves while continuing to do The Grateful Dead justice.”
Luckily for Dark Star Orchestra, The Grateful Dead has not indicated it will resume touring since its last stint in 2009. However, the resurgence of similar bands has reminded Dark Star members of the importance of remaining relevant.
“When we go back to a certain area, we play something different than we did the last time, and we also won’t play the same songs we played the night before on tour,” English said. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle to keep it fresh for the fans.”
To ensure fans will still fill the stands for Dark Star in the future, the group is promising something most older bands can no longer offer: an experience that feels truly authentic.
While original acts are embracing new technology such as advanced lighting and sounds, Dark Star is taking the opposite approach.
“We are traditionalists as far as the songs go,” English said. “When we are doing a specific year, we emulate the sounds of the time by using instruments and amps from that period of music.”
Purists have been known to heckle the band, calling its efforts the “anti-Dead” approach, but that has not deterred Dark Star Orchestra members from injecting their own personalities into the beloved songs.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s because we love playing this music,” English said. “We know what we are up against, but we still come into each show firing on all cylinders and ready to rock.”
Dark Star Orchestra will perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington tomorrow and Saturday. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $27.