When you first learn someone is a Deadhead, invariably the first question an inquiring mind wants to know is: How many Grateful Dead shows have you seen? For years, the answer would almost always end with "so far;" nowadays, of course, it's finite -- as The Grateful Dead officially disbanded in 1995 following leader Jerry Garcia's death. And for Rob Barraco -- the keyboardist/vocalist for the Dead tribute band, Dark Star Orchestra -- he's seen "upward of about 80." DSO, itself, has performed more than 2,200 shows over its 15-plus year career, including several with ex-Dead members Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh.
In advance of DSO's show at Jacksonville's Freebird Live on Feb. 24, Lowcountry Current caught up with Barraco to talk to him about when he became a Deadhead, if he's still able to listen to The Dead casually, and what he believes is the all-time greatest Dead show.
Question. Do you remember the first and last Grateful Dead shows you saw?
Answer. Oh, absolutely. My first show was 3/28/72 at The Academy of Music in New York City, and my last show was -- I don't know the exact date -- but it was March of '94. I saw most of my shows before 1980. I did some shows in '73 and '74. I did a lot of shows in '76 and '77. By '79, I kind of got myself out of the Dead scene. But I saw some shows in the '80s and a sprinkling of shows in the '90s. By March of '94, my last show, I couldn't go back again because Jerry was just "affected," if you will, that I just couldn't do it.
Q. Prior to seeing them when you were 15, were you a fan or did you become a fan?
A. I was a fan before but I had no idea what I was getting myself into at all. At that time, I'd only seen one concert before, and it was the Allman Brothers. A friend of mine was playing a tune on the acoustic guitar, and I was like, "What is that?" And he says, "A band called 'The Grateful Dead' and it's called 'Casey Jones.'" And I was like, "Wow, it's really cool." And then you know how when you're not aware of something and then you become aware of it and it's everywhere? I'd be walking through the mall near my house and the whole window of the record store would be decorated in Grateful Dead. All of the sudden they were everywhere, and they were on FM radio. They were playing the "Workingman Dead"'s album, so I heard "Uncle John's Band." Once I heard "Uncle John's Band," I was a fan.
Q. Knowing you make a living performing The Dead, can you still listen to The Dead as a fan?
A. Yes. Believe it or not, I can. A lot of The Dead listening I do now is for reference purposes, for shows we're doing. Just to be era specific. I never really was a huge Brent [Mydland] fan growing up, and I rediscovered him through playing with Dark Star and really appreciate him now. So he's the guy I know the least of. Now I know him really well after all those years playing with DSO. But I really got into the jazz world for a really long time. That's still where my passion lies. But, man, when I get a chance to listen to some of that Europe '72 stuff or September of '72, I'd sit down and just lose it because they were the most cutting edge rock band there ever was, I think.
Q. What do you think The Dead would be up to if Jerry were still alive today?
A. Who knows, man. There's a part of me that wishes after Brent died [in July 1990] that they hung it up. I'm sure Jerry would still be playing. He'd be doing his own thing. After Brent died I saw a lot of Jerry Garcia Band shows, and he never failed to [impress] me in those shows. ... And then you'd go see The Dead like two months later and it'd be painful because he just didn't have the spark.
Q. Can you play any Dead song?
A. I think we're 99 percent right now. I think the only songs that we don't know -- or, at least, some of us don't know -- are the very latter day Dead tunes. Maybe some of those Phil [Lesh] tunes from the end. I got to actually play a couple of those tunes with Phil but I know them the least of all the songs. As a band we've never done any of those songs. But, as far as the rest of the repertoire goes, pretty much we can cover anything.
Q. Is it more important for DSO to sound like The Dead or perform like them?
A. That's an interesting question. We want to be era specific. So if we're doing an '81 show, we got the right instruments, the right keyboard set-up, the right drum set-up. And we make sure the arrangements of the songs are specific to '81, because they morphed over time. But as far as the playing itself however, it's unscripted. It's all improvised.
Q. For you is there a quintessential Dead show?
A. That's a hard one. My favorite Dead show is Sept. 27, 1972 [at the Stanley Theater in Jersey City, N.J.]. There's just something about that show. It's electrifying. From the very first note till the end, it's really psychedelic too. They were starting to show their chops.
OTHER INTERVIEWS BY BLAIR R. FISCHER