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Dark Star Orchestra: Not Fade Away

Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta | July 03, 2018
Dave DeCrescente

Rob Eaton is buried in spreadsheets. It’s a spring afternoon and, as he does before each leg of Dark Star Orchestra’s never-ending tour, the rhythm guitarist is sitting quietly in his Colorado home, sifting through setlist databases and rifling through heaps of statistics while plotting out the next round of the band’s famous Grateful Dead recreations.

He chooses the setlists carefully, always aware of their placement in both the Grateful Dead catalog and the still-evolving story of Dark Star Orchestra. Then, Eaton distills the data into a 20-page booklet, which is distributed to the band and crew at the outset of every tour. The pages are filled with detailed venue notes, the evening’s running order and a Grateful Dead Almanac’s worth of auxiliary information culled from Dark Star Orchestra’s 20-plus- year touring history. It aims to minimize song repeats and assure musical diversity from tour to tour. Plus, to keep fans on their toes, Eaton tosses in occasional “elective days” where they craft original setlists.

“I have to give him kudos because it’s a really difficult, arduous task that he’s taken on,” keyboardist Rob Barraco says of Eaton’s ongoing research project. “He has a database that has every show DSO has ever played, in every single town we’ve ever played.”

Eaton’s mathematical mind and impressively trained ear are key parts of DSO’s special sauce. He can narrow a Dead show down to the year, venue and, even sometimes, an exact date simply by hearing a sliver of a single show. A voracious fan of the Dead since he first heard Europe ‘72 as a preteen, Eaton gained a deep knowledge of the band through his years as a taper and work restoring the old “Betty Board” reel-to- reel recordings with his friend, famed Dead archivist Dick Latvala.

And while the band’s official origins date back to 1997, the current lineup is, in many ways, DSO 2.0, boasting second-generation additions like Eaton, Barraco and lead guitarist Jeff Mattson. It took time, Eaton recalls, for him to officially join the band. In the late-‘90s and early aughts, he was working as a successful recording engineer, sitting in with Dark Star on occasion, but spending most of his time behind the boards for acts like Jimmy Buffett and Pat Metheny. Eventually, though— despite three Grammy awards on his mantle—he became restless. By 2001, he decided to “semi-retire” from the recording industry, move to Colorado and play with DSO full time.

“Change is hard and change is inconvenient, but usually change is positive—and it was for me,” Eaton says. “I was working with Ricky Martin in Florida and hating every minute of it. It’s just a matter of taking the step forward and not looking backward, and that’s what I did. And I’m very happy with my decision and I’m very happy with living check-to-check like everybody else does. My conscious and my soul are clean.”