Dark Star Orchestra returns to Penn’s Peak for its 11th annual Thanksgiving Eve performance
For Rob Barraco, he could, quite literally, consider the road home. As a veteran musician and current keyboardist for Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra, Barraco is constantly touring. While DSO’s non-stop touring schedule finds the outfit hitting everywhere from clubs to theaters, the current Thanksgiving run is one of Barraco’s favorites as it finds the ensemble carrying on an 11-year Thanksgiving Eve tradition of performing at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, which will take place Nov. 23.
“It never ceases to amaze me, the amount of people that come to that gig. Every year I’m just floored. That room’s got magic in it, man; it sounds incredible in there, and we always bring it,” Barraco said. “The crowd is always so appreciative – I can’t even tell you how blown away I am every single year we do it … it’s become an institution.”
Since its inception in 1997, DSO has paid homage to the Grateful Dead by recreating Dead shows in their entirety. When a show is recreated, the band uses the Dead’s sound from that period as a template to work from instead of trying to recreate the show note for note – a task that could never be done properly due to the Grateful Dead’s improvisational tendencies.
Over the last 19 years, DSO performed more than 2,600 shows – more than the actual band they’re paying tribute. Whether performing one of the psycedelic juggernaut shows of the late ’60s or running through one of the legendary stadium shows of the late ’80s, DSO gives Barraco the ability to bounce between the low end organ sound of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan or blaze through the lush Hammond B3 work of Brent Mydland.
Along with show recreation, DSO is also famous for its “elective” sets, where the band will dive into repetoire from a certain era rather than follow a Dead set list. It’s something that has proven to be well-received by fans for the mystery of what song will be played next. However free the elective shows are, they do stick to a certain time frame. While it would be interesting to hear a Pigpen sung “Hard to Handle” followed by a Mydland-style “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the orchestration of the Grateful Dead from those two time periods is drastically different.
“Most of the electives, we kind of don’t go there that much,” he said. “It’s only because the sounds are so different for the instrumentalists that we would have to start having two set ups on stage and have to start switching back and forth. I think that with most of the elective sets, what we’ll do is something like a combination of the mid ’70s and ’80s stuff. Or we’ll do what we call an ‘elective in the style of’ set, where we’ll do ‘69 and ‘70 material, or a ‘71 with the Pig stuff and we’ll just concentrate on that particular era. We’ll just make the set list up as we go.”
While DSO gives Barraco the opprotunity to cover material from all of the Dead’s career, like any Deadhead, Barraco has his favorite era. Since the inclusion of his longtime friend Jeff Mattson – a known fan of the early Dead material – on lead guitar, Barraco has been able to revisit that era.
“My favorite era of the Grateful Dead is the Fall of ‘72; September, October, November,” he said. “For me, that’s always the stuff that’s the deepest, and is before they got big and tried building the Wall of Sound. They started speaking another language completely, and that’s the kind of stuff I gravitate towards. My favorite show of all time is 9-27-72, and there’s a ‘Dark Star’ in that show that is just ridiculous, and I love it. ”
As fas as what kind of show is in store for Penn’s Peak, Barraco is honest in his response.
“I haven’t the slightest idea. I do not know, and I won’t know until I show up to go on tour. That’s all Eaton; it’s all him,” he said.
However mysterious the night may be, Barraco is certain of one thing: it will be a fun-filled exploration of the music of a band who means so much to so many people.
“They will absolutely get the Grateful Dead experience,” he said. “I’ve never played with a bunch of musicians who have the uncanny ability to recreate a particular sound without doing it note for note; actually improvising the entire thing, but yet capturing that entire sound and feeling. Our mission, basically, is to take ourselves on a journey, and take the audience on a journey as well. They’re going to get taken on a journey, one way or another.”
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IF YOU GO:
What: Dark Star Orchestra
Where: Penn’s Peak, 325 Maury Road, Jim Thorpe
When: 8 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 23. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Tickets: GA admission is $25 in advance, $30 day of. At press time tickets were still available but a heavy walk-up crowd is expected the day of the show.
Call: The box office at 866-605-7325 to check ticket availability or for more info.