A 20th on The Eleven: Dark Star Orchestra Celebrates a Milestone

Rob Koritz, DSO drummer

It was a chilly night at Martyr’s in Chicago on November 11, 1997, when a group of like-minded musicians got together to spin their takes on a band beloved by an intrinsic fan base — one that is both fun loving and importunate at the same time.

No one involved that night could have predicted what was blooming, as the original members of The Grateful Dead tribute group Dark Star Orchestra got together to have some fun and jam out.

On Saturday night, at the Palace Theater in Albany, a band that has seen 24 different members come through its turnstiles will ring in a very special 20th anniversary of playing Grateful Dead music. Whether they’re recreating a setlist from 1973, or piecing together their own show, Dark Star Orchestra has displayed some very impressive staying power. They are a touring force, filling theaters across the country and headlining festivals  during the summer while performing more than 2,700 shows in their history.

But the piece that holds it all together is what built the Grateful Dead community in the first place: the fans. For a group that had almost no expectations, Dark Star has exceeded in keeping together something that took 30 years to build.

“We had no idea this band would take over our life,” said Rob Koritz, who fills the role of Mickey Hart in Dark Star. “It’s so fantastic. Anyone who plays music for a living, they want some sort of security and longevity. I think we are doing the music justice.”

None of the members from that Chicago night remain in the band, but the ethos plays on. The Grateful Dead had to simply endure many times of their existence, whether is was a death in the band, or a health scare, or anything in between. In 1966, they were playing the Acid Tests, and in 1995 they were selling out massive football stadiums. Dark Star Orchestra has trucked on in a way that  preserves what Jerry Garcia and company made into a lifestyle.

But make no mistake, Dark Star isn’t a knock off in any way. To embody the spirit of a group the way that Dark Star has is an impressive feat.

“We are Deadheads too,” Koritz said. “We recognize that. Our hope is that we do the music justice. We are going to do what we have been doing for all these years this weekend. We work hard for this music and all we hope is that the fans receive it the same way.”

In an era where there is no shortage of Grateful Dead tribute music, Dark Star Orchestra has persevered. They stick to a simple script, one that brings a simple and pure form to those who weren’t around when the Grateful Dead were alive and well.

Koritz, though, doesn’t view what Dark Star is doing as starting a trend in the scene. It doesn’t take much to go out and see a Grateful Dead band, he says, and he understands that any competition is natural, if not warranted.

“We weren’t pioneers,” Koritz said. “Every town has a Grateful Dead cover band. You can see it any night of the week. In reality, we did it on a national level where there’s no dearth of Dead bands. Greensky Bluegrass does Dead stuff, and that’s incredible. It’s a testament to the music. Every band has its twists. It’s kind of like comparing this to the originals. No one is better than another, and everyone adds a unique take.”

Albany, and more specifically the Palace Theater, is a special venue for the band which has been making their November show an annual tradition, sometimes happening on Thanksgiving weekend. Koritz said the band adores the theater and the magic that it brings, especially because of the crowd it draws.

“We love the Palace,” he said. “The fans in Albany are just so great and honestly, it’s why we keep choosing to come back. The energy. It’s one of the bigger rooms we fill up. When the Palace gets rocking, you can see the balcony swaying and it gives the band an extra boost.”

Show is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., and while Koritz didn’t divulge too much, he did lead on that this special show isn’t lost on the band.

“We have a few special things in store, for sure,” he added. “We’re going to stand out a bit.”