Grateful Dead tribute band playing Toledo


The Grateful Dead were the musical equivalent of the postal service. There was just no stopping the band from making its appointed tour rounds, other than the occasional serious illness and, in 1995, the death of Jerry Garcia.

As a result, the Grateful Dead developed a loyal following known as Deadheads who religiously followed the band and became every bit as legendary as the group they supported.

In perhaps the ultimate testament to Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, it has developed a loyal contingent of its own.

Darkheads? Not quite.

But fans of the band, which is named for one of the Grateful Dead s songs, Dark Star, are out there, and have been known to tour with Dark Star Orchestra for several of its 130-160 shows a year.

Just don t come to the Dark Star Orchestra performance 7 p.m. Sunday at the Omni, 2567 West Bancroft St., and expect a Deadhead reunion, said the band s Rob Eaton, who handles Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead s vocals and rhythm guitar parts.

It s a mix. You get some older Deadheads, some kids who never saw the Dead, Eaton said. I think that s one of the good things about our audience. Our job is not to get these old staunchy Deadheads to like what we re doing. Our job is to spread the music around and get people turned on to the music who may have not been turned on before.

The Grateful Dead is regarded as perhaps the consummate live act, with a sprawling concert sound built on a framework of psychedelia, blues, and country, which musically morphed nightly through improvisational jams.

So it is with Dark Star Orchestra. Only, there s a catch: Each Dark Star Orchestra show is a song-for-song reproduction of a Grateful Dead concert from July 1972 through the band s final performance on July 9, 1995, at Chicago s Soldier Field.

While the set list may be the same, the songs aren t. To replicate note-for-note performances from each Grateful Dead concert would be next to impossible, Eaton said, and would go against the spirit of the band Dark Star is emulating.

You can t copy improvisations and you wouldn t want to, he said.

Instead, Dark Star Orchestra uses the familiar songs as its own framework device, in which to create a sound that echoes the Grateful Dead but is also very much its own.

Eaton compared it the Dead s frequent use of cover songs, which comprised as much as 50 percent of its set lists. They were maybe the first cover band, he said.

But Dark Star Orchestra has evolved musically beyond being a pure Grateful Dead tribute band since forming 11 years ago in Chicago. The band has in its set arsenal 90 percent of the Grateful Dead s material it can pull out at any moment, a percentage even the Dead couldn t match, Eaton said. Dark Star Orchestra often taps into its vast musical library at the conclusion of its Grateful Dead concert reenactment by weaving in and out of Grateful Dead songs as filler to extend the concert.

So, if the Toledo show is booked for four hours and the show only runs three hours and 28 minutes, expect a 32-minute jam of Grateful Dead music that s more Dark Star Orchestra than Grateful Dead.

We call them electives and fans call it the original set list, he said. For me, it s the most fun I do. I never know where we re going and to have this freedom to take what the Grateful Dead did and weave it into this one thing, it s more us. I think it s more for the truest Grateful Dead experience. Our fans, interestingly enough, like to see those the most.

And what say the remaining members of the Grateful Dead about Dark Star Orchestra? Considering most of them have played with the tribute act, it seems like they re fans of the band, too.

In a Rolling Stone article a few years ago, Weir discussed closing his eyes and listening to Dark Star Orchestra s John Kadlecik, who handles the Garcia vocals and guitar work, and for fleeting moments feeling that he was onstage with Garcia again.

Eaton, for his part, bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Weir, and also sounds and plays like him, too. In fact, Weir was Eaton s first inspiration.

I started playing guitar at 13 because of Bob Weir, he said. I don t know how to play any differently.

Not surprisingly, all of the members of Dark Star Orchestra are also fans of the Grateful Dead, and are sticklers for the concert details that Deadheads will appreciate, such as using the era-appropriate equipment to match the concert being performed. The band even has a Donna Godchaux (Lisa Mackey) to provide female harmonies for the 1970s-era shows.

And what concert will Toledo get? That won t be revealed until after Dark Star Orchestra finishes its set list from the night. But Eaton, who plans out the tour performances, has already picked Sunday night s show, based on two factors: that the band is not playing the same songs every night, which the Grateful Dead avoided, too, and also not to repeat the songs in the same town, which, considering Dark Star Orchestra last played in Toledo six years ago, probably won t be a problem.

No matter what concert it is, Eaton promises a good show.

The Grateful Dead have a sound that is very reminiscent in what we do, but at the same time all our own personalities are coming though, he said. At this point, it s the Dark Star Orchestra playing Grateful Dead music as opposed to Dark Star Orchestra trying to play Grateful Dead music.

Dark Star Orchestra performs an all-ages show at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Omni, 2567 W. Bancroft St. Tickets are $21 and available through

For more information call 419-535-6664.

Contact Kirk Baird atkbaird@theblade.comor 419-724-6734.