When the Newport Music Hall doors open at 8 p.m. Friday, so will an opportunity for fans to experience an evening of improvisational rock music with Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead cover band.
The band currently has seven members: Rob Barraco plays keyboard, Rob Eaton plays rhythm guitar, Skip Vangelas plays bass guitar, Lisa Mackey is on vocals, Dino English and Rob Koritz are on percussion and Jeff Mattson plays lead guitar and sings.
Mattson said he met members of DSO after being booked on the same bills and even filling in on several gigs, before officially joining the band in 2010.
“We’re a band that pays tribute to the live experience of the Grateful Dead,” Mattson said.
The Grateful Dead was a rock band that toured from the mid-1960s to 1995, disbanding after the death of lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia. The band is known for its long, varied and improvised set lists which quickly gained a widespread, devout fan base, popularly referred to as “Deadheads.”
DSO has gained a fan following as well by choosing different set lists from the Grateful Dead’s 30-year-long tour repertoire to play and interpret for fans.
“We’ll try to recreate the arrangements, the instrumentation, the stage setup and as much of the production as possible from that era,” Mattson said. “But we’re all still improvising because that’s very much the spirit of the Grateful Dead’s music.”
It’s been a long, strange trip to DSO for Mattson. Growing up the son of a jazz musician, he began playing guitar at an early age, he said, and began taking it seriously soon after, at 14 years old.
Mattson said he began learning to play the guitar playing folk songs, but progressed quickly and was soon playing Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead tunes.
The correlation between that early exposure and combination of jazz and rock influences, and where he is now as a musician, isn’t lost on him.
“I think it just seemed like the logical way to go,” he said. “I like the variety. I just want to improvise. Since I’ve been playing the guitar, it always seemed to be the most fun thing. The structure of a tune is always a challenge to learn first, then you learn that, but all the stuff in-between is where the fun lies.”
Mattson has played alongside Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, plays in Donna Jean Godchaux Band, and is a founding member of another Dead cover band, The Zen Tricksters.
Rob Kortiz, a DSO member for 15 years, studied jazz at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. He said his role as a percussionist is to embellish, adding to the sound’s color and texture.
“The jazz background suits me incredibly well for the music that we play,” Kortiz said. “I think of the Grateful Dead’s music, in many ways, as jazz — but played in a rock idiom, with rock grooves and everything. The approach to it is completely a jazz approach.”
Kortiz said he became a fan of the Grateful Dead in high school, adding that, for a period in his 20s, the band was the “be-all and end-all of my musical world.”
Vern Peltomaa, a 1988 graduate of Ohio State with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, plays guitar and sings in Grateful Dead cover band Local Color, which formed in 1989. He said his band plays monthly at King Avenue 5 in Columbus, with set lists drawing from more than 150 Grateful Dead songs.
Peltomaa said his first Grateful Dead show was at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, in 1984. He said that during his Grateful Dead touring career, he saw 124 shows and even wore a tuxedo to his 100th show in 1993.
“What drew me in was seeing the crowd having so much fun, knowing all the words and dancing the whole time,” he said of his first show.
Peltomaa said he is a fan of DSO and has been to 12 of its shows.
“They definitely do a good job recreating the Grateful Dead experience,” he said.
Andy Ross, a third-year in English at OSU, said he’s been a Grateful Dead fan since his senior year of high school, when his dad gave him an LP of “Workingman’s Dead,” a 1970 Grateful Dead album.
Ross said he thinks college campuses and Grateful Dead music make a good pair, and that OSU is ready for DSO this Friday.
“I hear they put on killer shows,” he said. “There are a million cover bands out there, but I’ve never heard of any recreating shows like that, song by song.”
Kortiz said Ohio has good jam-band fans, and DSO enjoys playing at Newport Music Hall.
“We love the room,” he said. “It’s a lot of energy with all the students there and everything. It’s definitely a highlight of our tour when we come to the Newport every year.”
DSO has been performing at Newport Music Hall every year since 2000, said Dave Weissman, the band’s publicist.
“It’s always a good party,” Mattson said. “Newport is always a nice, enthusiastic crowd. We always come in there trying to do the best show we’ve ever done, and we always try to do something different.”
Dark Star Orchestra will be performing at Newport Music Hall, 1722 N. High St., Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30.
Dark Star Orchestra will be returning to the area this Memorial Day weekend for Dark Star Jubilee. The fourth annual music festival is set to run from May 22 to May 24 at Legend Valley in Thornville, Ohio.