No keyboardist in the world has performed more Grateful Dead music than Dark Star Orchestra’s Rob Barraco. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan turned on the love light as the heroic original leader of the band when the Acid Tests were frequent and free. His unfortunate passing at the milestone rock star age of 27 spawned a keyboardist curse that followed the Grateful Dead throughout the rest of their history. After the Grateful Dead officially blew out the candles on their 30th anniversary in 1995, numerous acts took on the role of keepers of the flame, attempting to recreate and reenact those magic years before the death of Jerry Garcia. Robert Hunter kept writing lyrics, while the remaining core members of the group developed The Other Ones and The Dead, which branched off into projects like Phil Lesh and Friends and Ratdog—Rob Barraco was a main player throughout.
He may not have been an actual member of the Grateful Dead or an original member of Dark Star Orchestra, but Rob Barraco certainly had enough experience on his resume to get the full-time job offer from the band when they lost their keyboardist in 2005. We sat down with Barraco less than 24 hours after DSO’s sold-out 20th Anniversary show on November 12th, 2017, to discuss his future, his past, and the long strange trip in between.
Live For Live Music: Dark Star Orchestra—twenty years! How was last night’s anniversary show?
Rob Barraco: Last night was a blast. What a show! I have been running ragged—I haven’t had a night off in ten days, but I shouldn’t complain because I recently spent a full week in France drinking wine. Ever since then, I’ve been out in California touring with a new band, California Kind, which I have with friends from Phil Lesh and Friends and The Q [The Quintet]—John Molo on drums and the rest of the members of the David Nelson Band [Pete Sears, Barry Sless], and then we have this 24-year-old singer-songwriter, Katie Skene, and this insane guitar player from Los Angeles. The project’s way steeped in the blues and R&B… Way more than I’ll ever know.
L4LM: Where did you pick Skene up from?
Rob Barraco: John Molo met her producing a young band, and she played for him and he lost it. He got a hold of Barry Sless, and Barry called me and said we got this idea for a band. I said, “I don’t know, man. You guys are in California, and I’m in New York. I mean, I have no free time as it is.” I went out and did it, and now I’m hooked.
L4LM: Has California Kind given you a chance to do new stuff?
Rob Barraco: Oh yeah, we’ve been writing. Katie has a million originals, and Barry and I have stuff. We are also doing covers of things we’ve always wanted to play but never have. We picked a bunch of Blind Faith and Traffic tunes—obscure stuff that’s really cool to play, and nobody else is doing it. We’re trying to make it our own and make it sound like us.
L4LM: With twenty years of an ever-evolving Dark Star Orchestra lineup, what does the future hold for the band?
Rob Barraco: We’re going to continue doing what we do. It seems like we keep raising the bar for ourselves. Each show that we put under our belt, we are that much more in tune with each other. Some of the jamming gets to these spaces that I never dreamed we could go. A couple years ago, we started recording some original music, and we are going to get back to that now. Who knows? Maybe we can release an album of original music within the next twenty years…
Dark Star Orchestra, “The Thrill Is Gone”
L4LM: For the longtime fans, does it feels like going to see a theatrical performance of the Grateful Dead?
Rob Barraco: We joke about it all the time. [In announcer’s tone] “Tonight, the part of Jerry Garcia will be played by Jeff Mattson.”
L4LM: What is the biggest difference in working with Phil Lesh as compared to working with Dark Star for so long?
RB: The first day I started with Phil, his big thing was “You are the first among equals around here.” He just wants you to play and be yourself. He didn’t want designated solos—he wanted the band to create the sounds. At first, it was disconcerting for some people. Warren [Haynes], for instance, was in the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule at the time: Sing verse + sing chorus = it’s solo time! That has been ingrained in our music society forever. All of the sudden, we were given this modern jazz approach where everyone plays. I would think of them as DNA strands. Double helixes that go everywhere, and everyone supporting each other, but everyone had their say in the conversation, and it just went on and on. It really turned into a beautiful thing. We had to embrace that—to shake the shackles of our past. We created our own language.
Now playing with Phil, I think he has returned to the designated solo thing. With the Terrapin Family Band, his son, Grahame Lesh, now is kind of running the band in a way. Phil is playing brilliantly as he always has, but he is allowing his son to lead, and he is doing a great job. They have a lot of shows under their belt now. I just played two shows with them at Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York—it was really fun. Robert Randolph was on the gig too, and that guy is an animal. Plus, Nikki Bluhm was singing on the shows, and she is a stylist. She can adapt really easily on the fly and is easy to get along with. I had done ten shows in a row. I’ve never done that in my entire life.
Warren Haynes & Rob Barraco, “I Shall Be Released”
[Video: Ryan Hill]
L4LM: Wow! What was the run of shows?
Rob Barraco: It started in in California with California Kind. Then, the second day, I drove to the Hangtown Festival in Sacramento. It was a one-off with DSO, and they all flew in. I did two more shows with California Kind, and then took a crack-of-dawn flight to New York and played the Brooklyn Bowl and then The Capitol. The next night, I was back in Oregon to play the rest of the time with California Kind. I didn’t even realize I did it until I was looking at my calendar. I’ve never done ten shows in a row before. I think I’ve done seven when I was with the Zen Tricksters, and I took a day off and did another six one time.
L4LM: Did you recover yet?
RB: This is what I asked for in my life. I want to play. I’ve gotten the opportunity my whole adult life—now more than ever. How can I complain? Someone needs to smack me if I complain.
L4LM: Why do people attend a DSO show in Peekskill when the core original members are playing with Dead and Company at Madison Square Garden tonight [11/12/17]?
RB: I think Dark Star delivers this music in a way that some Deadheads really want to hear. I’m not taking anything away from anybody because I think it is great that Bob [Weir], Mickey [Hart], and Billy [Kreutzmann] are playing. I think their thing is really cool for what it is. It’s their own voice as the originators of the music, and they’re bringing in a whole new audience. Then, there is Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Those guys are bringing in a young crowd and they have their way of playing the music—I think it is wonderful and it keeps the scene vibrating. I’ve always thought the longevity of Dead music will outlast any of the other bands.
L4LM: Why is that?
RB: Well, Robert Hunter’s lyrics alone can speak to anyone at any age. You can’t say that this doesn’t apply now to the year 2017. That is what genius is. It’s like Shakespeare. The language itself might be archaic, but the messages apply to everyday living now. Hunter’s lyrics are going to live forever as far as I’m concerned. Other bands? Maybe not so much.
L4LM: You think the kid that just heard the Dead last week on Spotify will understand it like the Deadhead who has gone to three-hundred shows?
RB: When I first got into the Dead, I was fourteen. It wasn’t even the Dead—I heard a friend play “Casey Jones” on the acoustic guitar, and I was like, “What is that?” He said it was the Grateful Dead, and just the name got me! When you’re not aware of something, you just are not aware of it. Once you become aware of it, it’s everywhere. All of the sudden, I’m walking in the mall by my house, and there is this record store, and the whole place is festooned with Grateful Dead. They had just released the Skull & Roses album. There it was again—the Grateful Dead!
I must have just turned fifteen, and I had this little room in my basement. It was my blacklight room with blacklight posters and blacklight paint. My mother hated me. I had an FM radio down there when FM was a brand new thing. It was album-oriented rock as opposed to Top 40 AM radio. And I think I’m so cool, and then this song comes on, and I’m like, “What is this? This is so cool.” And the DJ gets on and says, “That was the Grateful Dead.” It was “Uncle John’s Band”, and I was hooked after that.
I still didn’t understand what the band was about until I went to my first Dead show, and I got it like the silver bullet in the forehead. It was at the Academy of Music in NYC. March of ’72, and it was the last show they did before they went and did the ’72 Europe tour. The opened with “Truckin’”, and we all knew “Truckin’”. Then they jammed and that was where I got it. Phil was the one who blew my mind the most because I was really into bass players back then—Jack Bruce from Cream, the bass player from Led Zeppelin. Phil played like no one else. It tore me apart, and it changed me forever. The fact that I got to play with this man for like a thousand shows—I couldn’t have scripted it.
[Photo: Rob Barraco Facebook page]