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Honoring the Dead

Dark Star Orchestra makes sacrifices to play Dead's music


By Rachel Trees

Rob Koritz said goodbye to his 18-month-old son last Tuesday.

He was off to pay tribute to Grateful Dead members Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and he wouldn’t be home again until March.

Koritz is one of two drummers in Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead tribute band that started another 120-plus show tour Jan. 30.  

Handling so many dates keeps Koritz on the road for a large portion of the year, during which the band members’ wives become “working, single moms.”

But Koritz said he wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t love it.

“I get to do what I love and make people happy,” he said. “Being gone for so long comes with the territory, but it’s our job.”

DSO, considered by many of its fans to be the best Grateful Dead tribute band, has been joined on stage by members of the Grateful Dead itself, ranging from Kreutzmann to Bob Weir.

Formed in 1997, the Chicago-based DSO has been praised by Rolling Stone for having a “fanatical attention to detail.”

Some of this praise may be attributed to DSO’s live approach. The collective recreates shows from among the nearly 2,500 shows the Dead has performed during its more than 30-year career.

Even Donna Godchaux-McKay, a Grateful Dead vocalist and frequent DSO guest, has said “playing with Dark Star Orchestra is something that feels just exactly like it felt when I was playing with the Grateful Dead.”

When Jose Alicea attends a DSO show, he keeps his eyes closed.

He said DSO sounds so similar to the Grateful Dead, it feels as if Jerry Garcia, the late legendary Dead frontman, is there in spirit.

Alicea, who was born in Puerto Rico, wasn’t introduced to the Grateful Dead until his sophomore year at IU.

“What I liked about the Dead was the family atmosphere at the shows,” Alicea said. “It’s so friendly. Everyone is there to see the Dead, and it’s a very spiritual feeling. I felt so young, like a kid.”

Alicea has seen 10 Grateful Dead performances and attended his first DSO show in 2000.

“I had heard of them and was curious, so I went to see a show and was in awe.”

He said he lost count, but Alicea estimates he’s now been to more than 50 DSO shows.

The farthest he’s traveled to see the band is Florida, but DSO visits Bloomington every couple of years.

Today, when DSO returns for an acoustic performance at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Alicea will be welcoming back “family.”

“I’m having friends come into town, all of whom I’ve met at Dark Star Orchestra shows,” Alicea said. “After the show, we’ll probably all play music together, and we’ll be traveling to other shows together. That’s why I love DSO shows. It’s all fans of the Grateful Dead together enjoying it.”

David Weissman, DSO publicist, said he was lucky enough to see the tail end of the Grateful Dead with Garcia as frontman. He said when Garcia died, the memories of that Grateful Dead era were all fans had.

“Dark Star Orchestra absolutely helps the legacy live on,” Weissman said. “The continuation of that similar spirit and vibe that the Grateful Dead brought to town is part of what Dark Star Orchestra does for fans. Having people college-age and younger come to the shows, some who weren’t even born when the Grateful Dead was done by 1995, is a huge inspiration for the members of DSO.”

Koritz said he is aware of the stigmas associated with cover bands, but even the Dead has been impressed by DSO.

Most of the members of the Grateful Dead have performed with DSO, and the band maintains a good relationship with the Dead’s crew and management.

“If you’ve never been to a Dead show, and you’ve heard the music and heard of the environment, this is it on a more intimate scale,” Alicea said. “Experience it once. You don’t have to like it.”

Alicea said he thinks Garcia would be proud.

“I’m sure he’s smiling and enjoying every minute of the show,” Alicea said. “It’s nice, pure, sweet Grateful Dead.”

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