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A Band Beyond Description? An Interview with Scott Larned of the Dark Star Orchestra

By Brian L. Knight

The Grateful Dead were a band of many styles and sounds. Although they maintained their credo of creating feel-good California psychedelia, their sound mutated from year to year. Through their thirty year career, the band covered a large breadth of styles: blues, psychedelic, country rock, jazz, bluegrass, experimental, rock and roll and much more. In addition, different band members with their different instruments helped define different sounds for the band. In the band’s 30 year span, the Grateful Dead stage was graced by keyboards, organs, grand pianos or synthesizers. Each would characterize a particular period for the band’s sound. The introduction of guitar effects such as the wah-wah pedal or MIDI technology created an interesting evolution process for both guitarists. Also during this period, the band went from having one drummer, to using two drummers, back to one drummer and finally with the same two drummers again. As for bassist Phil Lesh, his passion for intricate bass line seemed to be constant. Adding to this evolution of sound, technology and personnel, there was also a constantly changing repertoire of songs. New songs would be penned while old sings would be shelved or re-introduced. The final result of all these factors was a band, which despite its perception of being a stagnant musical entity, was actually characterized by change.

Due to this evolution process, there have been distinct phases for the band. For many of the younger fans, they only got to experience the later phases of the band while the enjoying the Dead during the 1970s and early 1980s was an experience left to the control of the venerable bootleg. Well that is no longer true with the advent of a band called the Dark Star Orchestra. Consisting of John Kadlecik (guitars, vocals), Scott Larned (keyboards, vocals), Mike Maraat(guitar, vocals), Michael Hazdra(bass), Mark Corsolini (drums), Ahmer Nizam (drums) and Lisa Mackey (vocals), the Dark Star Orchestra sets out to recreate the Grateful Dead experience. No, we are not talking simply about a Grateful Dead cover band that plays smoking versions of "Bertha", we are talking about a band that completely recreates a Grateful Dead concert of their choice. What really makes these guys interesting is their ability to re-create the sounds, jamming styles, and effects of any given era of the band. Just as the Grateful Dead had many phases and styles, the Dark Star Orchestra can masterfully mimic them. 1990s shows feature a lot of Hammond B-3 organ and MIDI technology while the 1970s are characterized by a large amount of the piano. The 1970s feature a female vocalist while the 1980s and 1990s may actually have the Phil Lesh taking a rare stab at the vocals. To take this performance art even further, each band member of the Dark Star Orchestra actually assumes the role of a Grateful Dead member. This means that guitarist John Kadlecik plays lead guitar and takes all of Garcia vocals, guitarist Mike Maraat plays rhythm guitar and takes the Bob Weir tunes and so on.

To keep in the spirit of the Grateful dead, the band keeps their proposed show a secret until after the show, so the same element of surprise that a typical Dead show possessed is maintained. In addition, the band will never play the same show twice . This all seemed kind of novel to me until I heard a sampler CD of theirs, which was their version of the Grateful Dead show at Broome County Arena in Binghamton, NY on 11/6/1977. A quick tour of a Samson and Delilah, Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain left me in absolute awe of the band’s similarity to the Dead – right up to Lisa Mackey’s space chanteusing in the segue between Scarlet and Fire.

The Vermont Review spoke with keyboardist Scott Larned while they were stopped in the beautiful mountainous region of Asheville, North Carolina. In terms of band responsibilities, Scott has the largest scope of work as his roles may include Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick. Since Brent Mydland was the only real prolific singer of the group, Scott has less concerns of mimicking different vocal ranges, but he does have the task of assuming remarkable different playing styles. Scott could not tell me what show they were playing that night, but since they only had one drummer, the band was forced to regulate themselves to the early 1970s. In Grateful Dead real history, the band went with the sole drumming of Bill Kreutzmann from February 1971 until approximately 1975. During this time the band made a transition from extended acid jams of "Cryptical Envelopment", "Dark Star" and "Alligator" into the more country-folk orientated rock typified by "Truckin", "Eyes of the World", "Bertha" and "Wharf Rat." This tour will be the first time that Dark Star Orchestra toured with one drummer so fans can expect an early 1970s blitz of shows like Portchester 1971, Jersey City 1972, Palo Alto 1973, and Winterland 1974. Some argue the most creative period for Grateful Dead in terms of both song writing output and jamming. In our conversation, Scott told a little about his love of the Grateful Dead, the driving force behind the Dark Star Orchestra and the goals for the future.

Vermont Review: How did the Dark Star Orchestra first get together?

Scott Larned: It came about when I was introduced to John Kadlecik, who does the Jerry Garcia stuff, by a mutual friend who always said that we should play music together. We were both in a bunch of different bands doing originals. I had always wanted a vehicle to just play Dead because I was doing all this original music which was cool but I have always been a Deadhead. I just wanted a chance to go out and play Dead music. He always thought the same thing. I laid the idea on him and he said that it was something he always dreamed of doing. He knew a couple of guys and I knew a couple of guys and after we got together for a practice one day, we looked around the room and said "Wow. This sounds really good." I had a friend who ran a club in Chicago and he let us try out on a couple of Tuesdays. And every week the attendance was double what it was the week before. People were freaking out – we were having a great time doing it. It grew from there.

VR: Did you play a full show right at the beginning?

SL: Yes that was part of the original appeal. We were trying to do something that was never attempted before. I think originally came out just to see what the hell we were talking about – "They are going to do what???"

VR: What was that first show?

SL: It was October 8th, 1981. 1980 maybe. I can’t exactly remember.

VR: What did you listen to when you were growing up?

SL: Lots of Dead. I think everyone in the band saw on an average of 100 shows. We also all have our individual influences. We all listen to different stuff. Some of us love bluegrass. Some of us love King Crimson. Some of us love jazz.

VR: What was your first Grateful Dead concert?

SL: Alpine Valley, 1987.

VR: And your last one?

SL: The day before the last one ever.

VR: Alpine Valley. That is where they played Derek and Dominoes’ "Keep on Growing".

SL: Yeah. It was a great place to catch shows. For some reason, the Dead always played great there.

VR: It was also the place that Stevie Ray Vaughan met his demise.

SL: Unfortunately.

VR: I guess the place has good vibes and bad vibes. Are there any songs that you are unable to play which ultimately affect which "shows" you can re-create?

SL: Yeah. We have learned a bulk of the repertoire so that we can go to a bunch of different years. There are a bunch of songs that the Dead only played a few times so we haven’t gotten around to learning those tunes. We did just have a practice last week, which was the first one we had in a really long time. We learned half a dozen new tunes. That opened up a whole lot of different eras. So that is how I think we going to keep doing it. We are going to have to slow down, have practice and work on a different year.

VR: So is there a era that you haven’t tackled yet?

SL: We haven’t done any of the real early stuff. 1971 is the earliest we have done so far and that’s just because of the Pigpen stuff. The band had a drastically different sound back then. We are just better vocally equipped to be working on what we are doing right now. But the again, we will take some time off and work at that kind of stuff and make it happen. Right now it is just the question of having enough time and sitting down and practicing.

VR: Doing a 1968 Carousel Ballroom jam-a-thon would prove to be a formidable task.

SL: Well, you know, they did it. So obviously, it is possible

VR: Say if you did a show like that or any show for that matter, there is a fine line between pure improvisation and re-creation. During one of your performances, how much of it is improvisation?

SL: It kind comes naturally both ways you look at it. We try to get the sound that they had in that year and jam in a certain style that they were doing at that time. Once you try talking in that language, you find yourself saying some of the same stuff. By using the same vocabulary that they use in certain jams, it just happens. We kind of know how it should sound, and all of a sudden, we end up sounding like it. In a certain way, even when we are improvising, we are probably doing some sort of mimicking but there is a lot of improvising. Like with the 1973 show last night, certain tunes were much longer than we are used to doing them.

VR: So as keyboardist, you handle all the Pigpen/ /Keith/Brent/Bruce/Vince duties?

SL: Well, we haven’t done any of Pigpen stuff yet.

VR: Do you ever break away from the formula of playing shows in their enteriety?

SL: Nope……………..well, I shouldn’t say that. We have done a couple of shows in our home venue where we have written our own set lists. Still all Dead material but put together on our won order. Special occasions.

VR: When Jon Fishman of Phish joined you on stage, did you guys stick to the formula?

SL: Yeah, he just joined in and took over for one of our drummers for the second set.

VR: Did your popularity increase after that session?

SL: Well yeah, it certainly didn’t hurt. I think there is a lot more crossing of camps too than there was a couple of years ago. It was all very interesting for us afterwards to gain a lot of Phisheads.

VR: Have you heard anything about your performances from the Grateful Dead?

SL: Not officially. Dennis McNally, their publicist, came out and saw us when we were in San Francisco. That was real cool- we hung out backstage. We heard, through word of mouth, Phil knows what we are doing. We know that they know.

VR: How do you decide which show you are going to play?

SL: Based on what we have out with on tour, equipment wise. A lot of its what we’ve been playing the last nights. A lot of it is what we played at the venue the last time we were there.

VR: Is it a democratic process?

SL: No. I choose all the shows.

VR: When you choose a show, how early beforehand do you tell the rest of the band?

SL: It has been changing a lot. Sometimes when we get to the venue, we have to change the show that I picked because the stage may be too small to get the organ on, so we can’t do an eighties show. So I would have to re-pick one. For this tour, I picked them all weeks in advance and told everybody all tens shows of the tour. It is because we are doing new eras for us and focussing on different tunes. I wanted everybody to have plenty of warning.

VR: So if you are going to do a 1973 concert tonight, that was a very jazzy period for the Dead. Are you equally going to be jazzing out?

SL: Oh yeah. Last night was really fun.

VR: All of those jazz influences that each member of Dark Star Orchestra must be coming to the surface.

SL: Definitely. It is interesting to see the freedom that we get when we have only one drummer. We are used to playing with two. Nothing against Robert, I love him dearly, but it is a bit more cumbersome with two drummers. It is easier to stop on the dime when there is just one guy.

VR: What was the quickest guess that somebody gave you at a show?

SL: A Lot people figure it out within the first couple if tunes. There are certain songs that they only opened up with once or twice. A lot of people bring their Deadbase. Sometimes, right around the fourth song, somebody will yell "Cassidy" right before we play it. There also a lot of people who don’t want to know what were are going to do. They just want to be surprised. I think that is the way that I would want to be too.

VR: Does your shows go as far as re-creating stage banter or dialogue?

SL: We have. Not the banter so much as when there is something really funny like when somebody starts in the wrong key or something. We got to do that. Otherwise it’s just too hard to keep up with especially if we don’t have the tape.

 

VR: You must get some crazy comments after your shows?

SL: Yeah. It is interesting what people say.

VR: Do you ever receive any criticisms from "purists"?

SL: Yeah. People complain but for the most part, when people come see us, that changes. For a lot of people, they simply don’t understand. For a lot of other people, the music is really important to them and they want to hear it played live. It was born for us just out of our own wanting to play it live too. It wasn’t some carefully calculated where we wanted to tour the world. We said "Hey, let’s just do this thing on a weekday."

VR: Add to the fact that your sound is pretty awe inspiring as well. I play your demo tape for other people and they can be genuinely fooled.

SL: I know. We heard lots of stories about people doing that at parties. Sliding in a tape and forty minutes into the tape, somebody asks "What show is this?" - "Well, its not the Dead" – "What??"

VR: What was your favorite Grateful Dead concert?

SL: I really can’t pick one. They are all so unique. They all have their magic moments about them.

VR: If you had to choose Pigpen/TC/Keith/Brent/Bruce or Vince; who would it be?

SL: Brent. He is a huge part of the reason why I play music. He was a huge influence for me. He was part of the reason why In wanted to do the Dark Star Orchestra- I wanted to play his tunes.

VR: How would translate the Dark Star Orchestra experience into a recorded effort?

SL: A lot of people suggested that we release some sort of live album. Like a Dick’s Picks. We could pick one of our shows and put onto a disc. It may happen. We are constantly evolving and getting better at what we do. One week we may listen to a tape from the week before and we seem to be getting better. It’s just hard to pick one show.

VR: Your shows are almost like a performance art. Any thoughts of having a permanent set up like a "Broadway" show or something?

SL: (Chuckles) Like an amusement park? I don’t think so. We like to tour around. It’s half the fun being out on the road – different venues, different props. Especially as people start to tour with us.

 

With a doubt, the Dark Star Orchestra is an event work experiencing. Check out their website at http://www.darkstarorchestra.net and see when they are coming to a venue near you.