HT Interview: Rob Barraco Pt. 2 – Dark Star Orchestra

Yesterday, we posted the first part of our chat with keyboardist Rob Barraco, which focused on the past, present and future of the Phil Lesh Quintet. Today, we pick up where we left off as Barraco tells Chad Berndtson how he became a member of Dark Star Orchestra, why DSO is starting to play shows from the late ’60s, what will become of Dragonflys an more.

[Photo by Adam Kaufman]

Hidden Track: Switching gears, Rob, to Dark Star Orchestra, it’s been about seven years you’ve been playing with them now, correct?

Rob Barraco: I started playing with them in 2005, basically as a favor to them after Scott [Larned] had passed away and they needed to finish a tour. I just kind of really enjoyed it — I really, really enjoyed myself — and I asked them if we could do it again, never thinking I would become a permanent member of the band. They didn’t seem to have a plan in place, and I was going out to tour again with Phil.

At the end of 2006, Phil told me he had prostate cancer and had decided to get off the road, and when he told me that, I had to have this sit-down and say, what am I going to do now — what do I want to do now. I’m not a rich man. I’ve got kids in college and a mortgage to pay. In early 2007, they approached me, and asked if I’d be willing to make a commitment. They offered me an equal share of the business. It was a no-brainer: I enjoyed doing this, I liked these guys, and there was a financial commitment.

And as soon as I make that commitment, who calls? Phil! He was asking me about more shows in 2007. I basically had to say no, and it killed me at that time to say no to him. Those guys in [Phil’s camp] are always forward thinking so as soon as I said no, they had moved on. That band [the 2007/2008 Jackie Greene/Larry Campbell lineup], I really haven’t listened to it and don’t know much about it because when I got involved with DSO at a commitment, I got really immersed in doing that.

HT: Take me back to when they first called you after Scott’s death. I asked Rob Koritz about that and he mentioned they’d had you in mind, but they weren’t even sure how to get the ball rolling. How did you and DSO come together?

RB: Well, I don’t think they didn’t know how to contact me. Cotter Michaels, their front-of-house sound engineer — he wasn’t with them at that time but had done stuff for them years earlier — knew me, I knew him well. He made the connection. I remember, it was a Sunday afternoon. I was hoisting a couch up over a railing at my girlfriend’s house. My cell phone rings, and it’s a Massachusetts number, and I’m thinking, who the hell is calling me from Massachusetts?

I answered the phone, and it was Norman [Gopin] — their manager at the time, and still a good friend of the band’s — and he said, we’ve got a month’s tour coming up, and if we don’t do this tour, financially, we’re going to be in deep shit. He says, you’re the only guy we can think of who could come in here and do this without rehearsing with the band. I looked at my schedule, and that month just happen to fit in between the Phil stuff I was doing and the stuff I was doing with my band the Dragonflys at that time. That’s how it happened.

HT: One thing that’s changed about Dark Star Orchestra in the last two or three years, it seems, is that you guys are doing a lot more of the late ’60s stuff. I’m told that a large part of that is you — your interest in doing the Pigpen stuff and really nailing it.

RB: That’s the stuff I cut my teeth on, man. I started listening to the Dead in 1970 and ’71, and I was lucky enough to see Pigpen maybe once, in 1970. There were scarce bootlegs available at that time — and if you can believe it, the bootlegs themselves were LPs. The greatest one I had was a Felt Forum Radio Show one from 1971. Now, you listen to the Dead records and they’re OK, but when you put on one of these bootlegs, you heard what this band really was — it was something else.

Dark Star Orchestra – China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider

Phil and Pigpen were my heroes. I was really into the blues. Before the Dead I was a Led Zeppelin freak and a Clapton/Cream kind of guy, but also into the blues and definitely R&B. Pigpen really embodied that spirit, and with Phil’s skewed way of playing it was amazing. I think my ability to do the Pig thing and Jeff [Mattson’s] ability to make that psychedelic guitar sound was the biggest adjustment we’ve made to add shows from [that era].

And it definitely was an adjustment: with John [Kadlecik], they never delved back much further than the fall of 1972, and I think some of members of the band were adamant about not doing shows they weren’t equipped for. They didn’t want to do any of those Pigpen shows, because you’d need two keyboard players. I respect that, and that they’ve wanted to stay true to the whole spirit of the thing.

I also think John’s forte was more the late ’70s and ’80s, and also the ’90s stuff. That’s the era he grew up in. But when Jeff joined the band, it was apparent to me we had to make an attempt. Me and Jeff asked the band, why don’t we try some of the Europe ’72 shows, and there was a little resistance at first because it meant we’d have to do the Pigpen and the Keith thing, and how would we do that. But really, Pig’s organ playing from the time was rudimentary. Sometimes it was cool, but on keyboards, it was by then a lot more about what Keith could do and was doing for that band. So we decided to sacrifice the Pig organ, and I said, I’ll do all the Pigpen vocal stuff and play the Keith thing.

You know, we don’t rehearse — we just do stuff at soundchecks. We live all over the country so it’s sort of impossible to get together and rehearse. So we’re forced to really listen to each other to get the different styles. But what ended up happening, and this must have been in early 2010, is that Dino [English] had a baby and went off for a while, and we went out and did four or five of the Europe ’72 shows with one drummer, Rob Koritz. It was awesome. We thought, OK, we can do this. The jams were really spectacular — we were doing stuff 15, 20, 25 minutes long, all those Good Lovins and Dark Stars.

What I ended up doing was transcribing the Pigpen raps from those tunes and trying to make them my own, and it got to a point where I could understand exactly where he was going with a lot of it when he’d start it. It was so much fun to really see and watch the progression of his raps, his development, over the course of a tour. He really was a lascivious son of a bitch, man!

But those shows worked well, so we said, OK, we’ve struck gold here. There’s a whole new area of the band we can go into. So I think it was a show in Peoria, maybe, and in the area we were supposed to play, the river had crested so we had to move the show indoors, and although we could still put two drummers up there, the stage was pretty tiny. Mattson said, ‘Why don’t we play a ’69 show.’ I’m all ‘I don’t know’ and he says ‘come on, let’s do it.’ We approached the band, chucked on a show we thought would work, and we just did it blindly. It was a little rough, but we could see that if we were to put a little effort into it, we could pull it off. Now we can do those ’69 shows — that psychedelia — really well.

HT: It’s such a rich area for exploration. You definitely have fans, me included, who’d tuck into a 30-minute Viola Lee Blues without protest.

RB: Absolutely. We’ve done all the ’69 stuff at this point, and there’s some ’68 stuff to look at. Early ’67 and ’66 shows, those don’t make as much sense to do because in those years, the Dead was mostly doing early and late shows and would repeat so many of the songs, that it’s hard for us to put that together as a show. There just wasn’t a lot of material back then. But by late ’68 they could usually do a whole two-set show and not repeat anything. And I hear you on Viola Lee — this last tour, the end of it, one of the ones out west we did was just mind-bending.

HT: You and Jeff have a pretty special rapport. He mentioned to me once that you were a big reason he decided to come on with DSO full-time. You guys have been playing together for decades. Talk about that relationship.

RB: I think we first met in the late ’70s, and we were in rival Dead cover bands on Long Island: he was in a band called the Volunteers and I was in a band called Timberwolf. In 1989, I’d just gotten off the road with this R&B band, and an old friend of mine with whom I’d be playing with since eighth grade — his name is Lee Finkelstein — he later called me up and said, I’m playing with this band the Zen Tricksters, why don’t you come down and jam with us? I said, who are the Zen Tricksters? He said, you remember the Volunteers? That’s what it is, with some different guys.

Lee was also in Timberwolf for a brief time, he was a jazz drummer. So I went down and I sat in with the Zen Tricksters, and the next day, Mattson called me on the phone, and basically said they wanted me to be the keyboard player. I said, you already have one, I can’t usurp that guy’s gig! Then the keyboard player calls me, and says, ‘I can’t believe you’d try to steal my gig!’ And then he says, ‘You know what? Fuck it. Gig’s yours.’ That’s how I joined the Tricksters.

I realized right away that Jeff had something really special. We had chemistry. The rest of the band, not so much, and little by little, Jeff and I whittled the band and got the players we wanted and turned it into a very lean, mean machine. It was a four-piece band that could play like six guys, and we were doing a lot of stuff with it, writing a lot of stuff. So Jeff and I played 11 years together in the Zen Tricksters — it was the longest I’ve ever played in a band — and I lived with him for nine of those years. I got to know him like a brother and we definitely had a rapport.

I’d always say I could be in a different room from Jeff and we could play together. He’s got an amazing musicality. His tastes are so varied, and he’s turned me on to more music than I can think of: eclectic world music, jazz, blues, weird rock, strange stuff. He turned me on to Tom Waits, which I’m eternally grateful for. A lot of those influences creep into his playing, too — that’s what I love about it. He’s not just a Garcia freak. Me, I’m a little the same, I’m a jazz freak, I love McCoy Tyner, Herbie, Chick, Bud Powell, but I never wanted to play like any of them, I just wanted to play like me. Jeff’s that way, too. It’s like, yeah, we can play Dead tunes, but we’ll play them the way we play them, which is really more the spirit of the Dead.

HT: It seems like Jeff had the DSO gig before he had the gig officially.

RB: As far as I’m concerned, he really was the only choice. We looked at a few other guys, but you know, Jef has really gone to great lengths to adapt. He’s got a setup now, and guitars, that when he wants to sound like Garcia, really sound like Garcia, it’s scary how close he can now get.

Jeff finally bought a McIntosh power amplifier. [Dan] Healy always said that the MC 2300 was the key to Garcia’s sound. Jeff had it close, but when he set that thing up, it was yeah, there’s the sound. He wants to buy one more guitar, he keeps saying, a Gibson SG, so then he’d really nail the ’69 Garcia sound. He’s gone to great lengths — there’s a whole MIDI set-up, and a lot of that stuff was pretty alien to him in the past. As he’s gotten older, he’s become more congenial — he’s willing to embrace this kind of stuff.

HT: Your handful of Mattson/Barraco shows have been a lot of fun. Are there more of those to come?

RB: The biggest thing with that is the same thing with getting the Q back together: when is there ever time? Since January 31, I’ve been home for less than three weeks. We did a five-week tour, took a week off, and then went to Europe, took less than a week off, and went out West, had a little less than a week off and then I went to play with Phil. We’re just about back on tour again.

HT: You seem like you like that pace, though.

RB: Hey man, this is the life I chose. I’m compelled to do it. I don’t know what I’d do with myself anyway. If I’m off the road for more than three weeks, I really start to jones. I play every day when I’m home, but it’s not the same.

HT: The last thing I wanted to ask you about, for now anyway, is that Dragonflys band and the solo album you put out in that same time period. Do you think you’ll return to that material ever?

RB: Jimmy and I were talking about the Q, and how to incorporate some of his material into that group — he has some great material — and he says, man, we should be doing that Dragonflys stuff, it’s ridiculous we don’t play it. Hunter wrote the lyrics so it’d fit. Phil has heard, I gave him a copy and played it for him and Jill at his house and they seemed enthralled with it.

I think at some point I will come back to it. If Mattson/Barraco does more stuff, we could incorporate more of that stuff there, and we did play one of the Dragonflys songs as one of the gigs. I’d love to be playing that stuff. I play it at home all the time, and I tinker with those tunes. It’s like how Bob Dylan looks at his tunes, they’re always works in progress. But I do hope I return to that. I would hate to think I put that album out there for nothing.

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2 Responses

  1. great set of interviews. Barraco is the man! such a nice guy, too. excellent ambassador in keeping the flame alive.

  2. Excellent interview Chad and RB!

    In the land of transcending music and hearts, one can find there is enough space for all to express and be heard, in-spite of what might seem like competition and fear in “capitalistic” endeavors…….Let the Lovelite shine and there we will find peace in our own hearts and the world…..Let the music sing, energize, bring together and rejoice! L.R.R

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