Dino English admits to being a bit of latecomer to the music of the Grateful Dead.
The Lexington-based drummer, who now makes interpreting the fabled jam band’s songs his vocation as a member of Dark Star Orchestra, didn’t really become a Dead Head until 1990, a mere five years before the passing of guitarist Jerry Garcia signaled the official death of the Dead.
“There are guys in Dark Star Orchestra who started going to Dead shows back in the early ‘70s, so I’m definitely the young Dead Head of the band,” said English, who performs with DSO at Buster’s on Tuesday. “But we all come to the Dead’s music from the perspective of a fan.”
A drummer versed in jazz studies, English joined Dark Star Orchestra early in its career. The Chicago-based group formed in late 1997 and quickly gained national distinction amid legions of Grateful Dead cover bands. Instead of covering specific Dead songs, they recreated entire setlists – meaning, nearly all Dark Star Orchestra concerts take their cue from the order in which the Dead played a set of songs on a given night decades ago. And given how the Dead’s sound, personnel and very musical makeup shifted over the years, recreating a concert from 1972 (when the Dead operated with one drummer) differs considerably from exploring set-lists from 1977 (when it had two drummers and a female vocalist) or 1991 (when the Dead often utilized two keyboardists).
“It’s an interesting mix,” English said. “The Grateful Dead was primarily a double-drumming band, although there were time periods when it used only a single drummer. And since DSO does a different show every night, we use a different stage set up with sometimes a different number of musicians. It’s a continually fresh approach.
“With the two drummer thing, it’s a deal where one player is more of a straight ahead jazz drummer that doesn’t necessarily stick to the guidelines. That’s primarily my role. Ron Koritz, our other drummer, is more of a percussionist who adds fills and instrumentation over the top of the music.”
English joined DSO in 1999 (“right about the time the band started getting serious about touring”) and lived in St. Louis until 2008, when he got married and relocated to Lexington. He has sat in with several local bands since then. In January, he performed twice at Cosmic Charlie’s – once with a new original music group called The Kentucky Gentlemen and again with the long-running Grateful Dead cover troupe Born Cross Eyed. But he admits that he hasn’t gotten a complete taste of the local music scene yet. A regularly full DSO touring itinerary and home duties raising a young daughter tend to limit English’s time in Lexington clubs. His primary performance focus continues to be on bringing the Dead to life on the road.
“I tend to really like the Dead setlists from ’77 to about ’87 the best,” he said. “It was all about the flow of their shows. At that point, they developed a kind of game plan that they stuck with for awhile.
“They used the first set as a kind of warm up. During the second set, they brought out the big guns and opened out into more spacious playing. Then they just blew everything out at the end of the night. It was a formula, but it worked.”
That formula has its limits with DSO, however. The band isn’t so locked into a vintage set list that it tries to recreate a Grateful Dead show from years past with note-for-note precision. Admittedly, there is enough source material to do so if it wanted to. The Dead has released close to 100 official concert recordings and openly allowed Dead Heads to record concerts themselves during the band’s active touring years. DSO instead uses the Dead’s setlists more as roadmaps for their own improvisational exploration.
“Some people have this misconception that we try to play things note-for-note the way the Dead did,” English said. “It’s not really about that. It’s more about playing the arrangement of a song that’s true to a specific time period in the band’s history and using that as a kind of launching pad.”
Among the fans DSO has picked up over the years have been several former members of the Grateful Dead itself. Guitarist Bob Weir, keyboardists Tom Constanten and Vince Welnick, drummer Bill Kreutzmann and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux have all performed onstage with the band.
The DSO and the Dead camp have even traded a few members. DSO guitarist John Kadlecik defected in 2009 to Furthur, a new band fronted by Weir and Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Back in 2007, former Lesh keyboardist Rob Barraco (who also toured as part of several Dead reunion tours) joined DSO. Dead sound engineer Dan Healy even toured with DSO for a year.
“So many members of the Dead community have been so hospitable to us by joining us onstage,” English said. “They’re used to far more luxuriant situations than what we deal with, too. So it’s great that they have become such good friends.”
Dark Star Orchestra performs at 9 p.m. Jan. 31 at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom, 899 Manchester St. Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 day-of-show. Call (859) 368-8871.