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July 2, 2009 12:35 am


Dark Star Orchestra's members are experts in several different eras of the Grateful Dead.


Our baby-boom-weighted population continues its slide toward the AARP age range, buoyed by waves of nostalgia. That shift has facilitated the inevitable rise of the rock 'n' roll tribute act.

Elvis impersonators have had the most success, to the point of becoming an irresistible self-parody. Beatles tributes tour the globe, as do Bee Gees cover bands, expert Journey forgeries and top-notch Pink Floyd apers.

The local Celebrate Virginia Live lineup has featured no fewer than three well-regarded tribute acts this season: ZOSO, a Led Zeppelin sound-exactly-alike; a tribute to Rush named Limelight; and the venerable Grateful Dead appreciation society that is Dark Star Orchestra, scheduled to play Tuesday night.

Dark Star Orchestra has become an institution unto itself, earning rave reviews from die-hard Deadheads, casual fans and former members of the real thing.

According to its Web site, DSO has played about 1, 700 shows--many in front of large, enthusiastic crowds.

"Every Deadhead has his opinion," drummer Dino English said in a recent phone interview. "The way they vote, in the long run, is by coming to the show."

But the reaction varies, depending on what expectations concert-goers have coming in, he added.

"I think a lot of people can see what we're really all about. Others can't get past the stigma of the cover band thing. Most people see that we're Deadheads playing Dead music, and they're glad we're doing it."

Any top-drawer tribute act needs to have its heart in the music, but DSO's members have immersed themselves in the Dead's catalogue and traditions like few other tribute acts ever have.

Their level of devotion coincides with that of most Grateful Dead fans--people who revel (still) in every set list, song choice and extended guitar solo Jerry Garcia and company kicked off the stage during their 30 years of very active playing.

English is one of those people. He studied music in college, and spent his weekends composing and playing original songs. During the week, however, he would meet up with local musicians and play what they all knew: Grateful Dead songs. He heard of DSO through the grapevine.

"I checked them out one night, and sure enough, they were doing it right," he said.

He noticed that they were looking for a new drummer, and he gave the band a call. After one show, he was the new Bill Kreutzmann. English has filled that role for the past 10 years.

DSO goes the extra mile to meet the authenticity requirements of rabid Dead fans. They try to stay true to the Grateful Dead's equipment in an attempt to coax the proper tones from guitars, basses and keyboards. Their vocals bear an uncanny resemblance to the originals, and they've even managed to adopt some of the onstage mannerisms die-hard fans will be familiar with.

DSO has another claim to fame in the tribute world--they often recreate the exact set lists of actual Grateful Dead shows from the past. The show is not remade note-for-note, but the songs and song order is the same. These days, DSO will often make its own set list, essentially drawing on the Grateful Dead's entire catalog.

"We pretty much know what's going on by now," English said. "We know the general arrangements of songs from different time periods. It's kind of second nature at this point."

When they are true to a particular show, time and place are details that make the difference. A late-'70s concert will replicate the jazzy piano styling of Keith Godchaux and include the backup vocals of a Donna Jean Godchaux stand-in. An early-'80s set will feature the same high harmonies and organ fills that Brent Mydland brought to the Grateful Dead at that time.

If they do play a particular show from the past, the date and location are announced at the end of the evening. If it is an original set list, they will still play individual songs in a particular style.

"We can draw from all these periods we've studied," English said. "We can play some '60s stuff, then throw in some late-'80s stuff."

No matter the era, fans will get a Grateful Dead fix that can be matched only by the original.

"It's my favorite music in the world," English said. "As a drummer, I'd generally be playing another person's music anyway--I just prefer to play the best music I can--Grateful Dead music. These songs are about as good as they come."

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036

What: Dark Star Orchestra pays tribute to the Grateful Dead with a faithfully rendered performance. Where: Celebrate Virginia Live, Gordon W. Shelton Boulevard, near the new Wegmans When: Tuesday, July 7, 6 p.m. Cost: $15; all tickets for the previously rained-out June 5 show will be honored at the gate. Info: 540/850-5483 Web:

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