First Posted: 11/24/2014
When bassist Skip Vangelas got invited to join acclaimed Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra in 2013, it followed several years of band lineup changes. A few years prior, the band went on the hunt for a new lead guitarist and singer, and prior to that, auditions were held for a new keyboardist. The moves could prove detrimental for many bands, but DSO understood the love of bringing the Dead’s music to a new generation, and followed one of the Dead’s most beloved lyrics – “but the band kept playing on.”
“It’s the music; it’s all about the music,” Vangelas said. “If you get people that are dedicated to it, and are passionate about it as we are, it’s one of those things where you can take one person out and bring another person in and sit in and gel. The people who come to see you – they’re there for the experience and to hear the music and to get off on it in their own way. As long as you’re out there playing it for them, that’s the thing that sustains it.”
While 2014 marks the 17th anniversary of DSO, another milestone is taking place: on November 26, the band will be marking its ninth consecutive year hosting a Thanksgiving Eve party at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe. For Vangelas and his band mates – guitarist/singer Jeff Mattson, guitarist/singer Rob Eaton, keyboardist Rob Barraco, drummers Dino English and Rob Koritz and vocalist Lisa Mackey – the tradition is as much a treat for the band as it is for the fans.
“I love that place,” he said. “I’ve played there twice since joining the band, and it’s the coolest place I’ve been to. As soon as Penn’s Peak comes on the roster for a tour, the energy starts for us. It’s not just me that thinks Penn’s Peak is a really cool place. It’s everything, not just the place itself. It’s the people that come to see us, and the parking lot scene and everything else. It’s just got its own little energy to it. Also, it’s just so beautiful up there. As soon as we see it on the tour, everyone says ‘we can’t wait for Penn’s Peak.’”
DSO’s blueprint is fairly simple: play music the Grateful Dead played, but with their own interpretation. It can come in the form of a “DSO Elective” set list where the band jams on whatever Dead-related material it feels like, or it could be a complete show recreation where the fans frequently yell out show date guesses with each song that’s performed. Whatever the music presents, the members of DSO must be well-versed in the Dead’s enormous catalogue, which Vangelas finds to be an enjoyable experience for lifelong Deadheads.
“I really like all of it,” he said. “I really liked the old stuff; ’68, ’69, ’70 – that’s what really grabbed me when I first started listening to the Dead. To me, there’s all these little eras that people like. You have the one drummer era – 1971 to 1974 – which I also like. And of course coming around from ’76 to ’78. For me, growing up and listening to them and going to shows and stuff, that’s really where I cut my teeth. But I like all of it. I’m just a Deadhead like everybody else. I just enjoy all the music.”
Being a fan of early and mid-70’s Dead, Vangelas finds himself in an interesting place. With his role in DSO, he is known as the “Phil Lesh” of the group, who is responsible for all the bass lines, but also handles a bit of vocal duties when it comes to certain songs. DSO’ previous bass player – Kevin Rosen –was an accomplished bassist, but when it came to vocals, other band members would often handle the duties.
“That’s me,” Vangelas said about his handling of the vocals. “That’s kind of one dimension I bring to the band that Kevin didn’t really fill in as much with – the vocals. I do all of Phil’s parts, actually; not just his songs. For instance, if we do a 1972 show, he sang a lot of harmonies back then, so I would take all his parts. It’s a lot of fun.”
Vangelas invites everyone to join in the party at Penn’s Peak. Just don’t ask what kind of show will be delivered that night – the band doesn’t know yet. However, he does know this: DSO will provide another holiday blowout, and if years past are any indication, the shows only continue to get better.
“It’s pretty much a surprise to us all the time,” he said. “All I would say is, come on out. If you’ve seen us before and had a great experience, we’re ready to give you another one because we’re certainly looking forward to having another one. If you haven’t been to see us, why not come out and give it a try? Especially around the Thanksgiving holiday. You may be pleasantly surprised and want to do it again for another nine years, or more.”