An upcoming three-day reunion in Chicago notwithstanding, you can’t see the Grateful Dead live anymore. But Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) allows audiences to relive the Dead experience and the Chicago-based group has created an enduring legacy of its own. Forming in 1997, DSO has garnered a national following by re-creating Dead shows with painstaking detail. On Monday, Feb. 16, DSO will return to Birmingham with a performance at Iron City. Recently, we caught up with drummer Rob Koritz by phone as he was literally hours away from embarking on the band’s current four-week run.
Weld: Rob, thanks for your time. You’ve been with DSO since its earliest days, correct?
Rob Koritz: The band started in the fall of 1997 and I joined in the spring of 1999.
Weld: Did you ever think the band would still exist nearly 20 years after first forming?
RK: No, I certainly didn’t. When I came on, it was still a relatively regional band and my first tour was the first time we went to California and started going national. I thought, “Maybe this will work out for a couple of years.” I had no idea it would be 17 years and 2,500 shows — not in my wildest dreams. We’ve had some incredible opportunities over the years and things are still going really well.
Weld: Your band makes a practice of playing specific Grateful Dead shows in their entirety, correct?
RK: We do that about 70 percent of the time now. When the band first started, we did it on the fly and it was difficult. Now what we do is let one person do it. If we all gave our input, we would never agree on one show, much less the whole tour. So one band member does it. When the tour starts tonight, there will be a book laying on my bunk that has the whole tour lined up and what we’re doing every night.
Weld: Your band even goes so far as to use period-specific gear when recreating shows, as I understand it.
RK: Yeah, for sure. That’s part of our maniacal attention to detail. The band’s sound was ever-changing, and to really nail the sounds of certain periods, you need the right equipment. We travel with a lot of gear.
Weld: Is there a challenge in putting your own stamp on the Dead’s material while maintaining the integrity of the songs?
RK: That’s a great question. I would like to say no, because 90 percent of the Grateful Dead’s music is improvised. So we’re still improvising every night and we have a huge amount of artistic freedom. Having said that, there are certain things that are part of my personal style that I have to leave out because they don’t go with the Grateful Dead’s musical style. It doesn’t get stale because we’re still getting to create and they’re great songs — songs we all loved before we were in this band.
Weld: Do you have a favorite era of Grateful Dead music?
RK: It’s changed over the years. When I joined the band, our favorite periods tended to be the period when we started seeing the Grateful Dead. For me, that was the ‘80s, and that was really what I dug the most, and I still do. I really enjoy the early ‘70s one-drummer stuff now — it’s a much jazzier approach to what they were doing, as opposed to when they had two drummers. Right now, we’ve been delving into the ‘60s stuff and it’s a completely different animal and I’m really digging on that. There are definitely periods that speak to me.
Tickets to the 8 p.m show are $22.50 — $25 day of the show — and can be purchased at ironcitybham.com.