Dark Star Orchestra: A True Memorial Day

What a strange and eerie coincidence…

On the same weekend that I saw the Phish cover band Phix for the first time ever, the greatest cover band in the history of the tribute genre — Dark Star Orchestra — lost one of its co-founders and top musicians, Scott Larned.

Apparently the curse of Grateful Dead keyboardists is so strong that it extends beyond the band to its best cover band. But DSO had made the decision to get back on the road with a guest keyboardist, starting this Friday at New York’s Irving Plaza. And the Ace Cowboy will most definitely be in attendance.

Here’s the latest from the band: “The decision to resume touring was an easy one to make; one that we’re sure would have pleased Scott. He himself had made many sacrifices in order to continue touring and playing the music that he loved. To do anything but continue onward would be a disservice to his memory and to this incredible group he helped nurture for over the last seven years.

So the band will roll into New York City for a two night stand at the Irving Plaza to kick off the rest of the Spring tour. Scheduled shows include stops in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont before closing out the tour at Ripplefest in Bluffton, OH on June 18th. We hope you can come out and welcome the band back on the road…An unannounced special guest will play keyboards for the entire tour.”


I’m excited to see DSO again, as it’s been a long time for me. And I’d love for them to have staged a major coup and convinced someone like Page or Bruce or even Vince Wellnick to play with them for a short tour. Scott will be tough to replace, though: He wasn’t only a supremely talented musician, he was also one of the nicer guys I’ve ever met.

I stumbled upon DSO by accident, really. One of my friends got thrown out of this bar called Matilda’s in Chicago for not having a good enough ID, so we all left and went to Brother Jimmy’s down the street for a few beers. And there happened to be a power outage at Martyr’s that night, so DSO played at an alternate venue. Fate, that’s the only explanation as to how both groups ended up there. And there was also some love at first sight involved. I absolutely fell in love with the band that night (in the spring of 1997) and dragged people downtown a few weeks later in June to see these guys play. We were instantly hooked.

Throughout my sophomore year and occasionally during junior year, my buddies and I used to jaunt down to Martyr’s every Tuesday night for three hours of the closest re-creation of a Dead show you could ever imagine. The resemblence was uncanny, and it cost just three bucks (later five, later ten, then much more on the road). This band wasn’t just a trite cover band…they played an entire Dead show from tuning to encore, complete with a long setbreak, a half-hour Drums > Space and a Donna Jean when doing a 70s show.

These guys would change their sound completely when playing different eras, and they were damn good at it too. They never once put forth a half-ass effort, you always got your few bucks worth. I’d even go so far as to say, over the past few years, they were better than the current incarnation of The Dead. It’s weird to say, but by the end, DSO was a better band than the band it was covering. And Scott on those keys was the driving force.

In October of 1998 I hung around until after the show ended and I approached Scott. I had to write a long feature piece for my Newswriting and Reporting journalism class, and I thought of nothing else to write about than DSO. They were the perfect feature. Scott agreed instantly, despite the fact that I wasn’t even doing this for a real publication (I didn’t even have a fedora with a white piece of paper saying “Press” on it).

We met in at the Unicorn Cafe on campus — DSO’s headquarters are actually located in Evanston, Ill., where I went to school — and he talked to me for well over an hour, probably closer to two. He went through his history with the Dead, the band’s philosophy, his and the band’s work ethic, the desire to start touring nationally, the strengths and weaknesses of the band, how they picked a show, how they rehearsed for the show…for everything I asked he explained away in detail.

This was like a student of magic interviewing Copperfield. This guy was telling me how he made the Statue of Liberty disappear. As we were finishing up he let me in on some inside info, that Phish’s own Johnny B. Fishman would be sitting in after the 11/98 Phish shows at the UIC Pavillion. Of course, due to a campus wide blackout and torrential crapstorm, that was the one Tuesday we missed all semester.

But Scott was amazing. Here was a musician taking hours of his time (and hours of follow-ups via phone and e-mail) to help out a 19-year-old kid with his school project. This wasn’t even going into print (yet) and here he was doing all he can to make me look good. In fact, it turns out that I wrote the eighth article in history about these guys, of the hundreds that have since been penned. And that’s pretty cool! Eventually I got that story into a short-lived campus magazine, but it still resides on DSO’s press page under “Northwestern University Journalism Assignment” (don’t make fun, this article isn’t good at all!).

Years later, when DSO came to New York last year I paid $25 for a ticket. I e-mailed Scott to jokingly tell him what an outrage that was. Scott then volunteered to put me on the list free of charge the next time they came to town, an offer I’d clearly take him up on. I was literally about to e-mail him the day I found out he died. That’s just plain weird.

So here’s to a great guy that got me closer to the Grateful Dead than I ever could have imagined. Here’s to a great guy that, along with the band he helped start, gave me hours of of solid entertainment in the most fun years of my life. Here’s to a great guy that gave me his time and helped me out when he clearly didn’t have to. And here’s to a guy that kicked ass at what he did. We bid you goodnight.

And for everyone that hasn’t seen these guys in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey or anywhere else DSO may be stopping on this short tour, if you’re not either performing surgery or being operated on, get there and enjoy.