ITHACA, NY — The Dark Star Orchestra has long been a popular attraction whenever they visit Ithaca, and they’ll be in town at the State Theater for another mystery show from the Grateful Dead’s vast catalog of songs. DSO percussionist Rob Koritz spoke to The Ithaca Times about COVID, bringing enough drums on the road and his jam band-based podcast.
Ithaca Times: I know you did a Grateful Dead tour, but how has COVID impacted the DSO?
Rob Koritz: Well, for the first year or so, we only played maybe 10 shows in 2020. We were stuck at home like everyone else. And then last year, around May 2021, we got it back. But we only played on the weekends; we would go to a city. So we would just fly in, play a few shows and fly out. You know, that way we weren’t on our bus and we weren’t on tour, so to speak. We could work, but it was exhausting flying out every Thursday and coming home every Sunday, week after week. Coming up, when we come to you now, it will be our second real tour; we just did our first at the end of January-February. It was the first time we took the bus, going from town to town. It’s definitely different now; we don’t have guests backstage, we don’t spend a lot of time in public, we test very regularly just to make sure we’re all safe. Although it’s different, we’re just doing what we have to, for now anyway
IT: I can’t even imagine — 10 shows in one year.
RK: Yeah, that was crazy. But at the same time, it was kind of nice to be able to spend more time at home than ever. It’s the most time I’ve ever spent with my wife and kids. So there were definitely positives. The negatives weren’t getting to do what we loved and really didn’t make any money for a year.
IT: I know Billy [Kreutzmann] and mickey [Hart] used very elaborate battery configurations. When I think of the DSO, I always wonder what it takes to transport all that.
RK: Yeah, that’s a lot of drums, man, you know? It depends on the emission that we do, the amount that actually comes out of the truck. Because over the years the drums have changed, but there are a lot of them on the truck, that’s for sure! If we’ve been doing something since the early 70s, there’s only one battery; that’s all there is. In 1976 and 1977, there are only the batteries. In 87, it’s all the big battery in the back, and all the electronics. There are nights when we have nothing on stage but one drum kit, and there are nights when there are 50 drums up there. it depends on what year [of the live Dead catalog] we play, because it has changed so much over the years.
IT: What do you do with the 21 hours a day you’re not on stage?
RK: That’s a great question, man. We all do different things. Some guys just sit around and watch TV. Some of the guys are going to exercise. For me, on show days where we’re seated around 8, 9 p.m., I have a podcast that I started during the pandemic, so I’m working on the podcast. I’m involved in community stuff where I live, with a summer camp I attend, so I’m going to work for that.
IT: Tell me about your podcast.
RK: It’s called “The Music Plays the Band”.
RK: And I interview different musicians from the jam scene and around, not completely from the jam scene, about how they first turned to the Grateful Dead, and how that affected their careers as far as is about acting, songwriting and business and what kind of influence the Grateful Dead have had on them over the years. I had members of the Grateful Dead, like Donna Jean Godchaux. I had Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane. But I also got out of the band world and had people like Bob Crawford, who’s the bassist for the Avett Brothers, who’s a big Deadhead. The bottom line: Musicians who love the dead love to talk about the dead.