Skip Vangelas—Dark Star Orchestra

I grew up in Clifton, New Jersey. My first musical memory that got me interested in music was the Beatles, but my first exposure to music was Chubby Checker. My parents had record albums of Chubby Checker in the house and when I was a kid I would put it on not really knowing what I was listening to, but everybody was familiar with the twist, so as a five year old, I knew what that was. And then of course once the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan it was all over for me.

I didn’t start thinking about playing an instrument until I was 17. I was very involved in sports as a kid. I played baseball, basketball, and football until high school was out. So when I was 14, I was listening to Mountain at our boys club, and I thought that was really cool stuff. Before then it had been the Beatles and the Stones…and a little Cream. My first interaction with Grateful Dead music was in 1969, I was 11 years old. I watched a show from the San Francisco public TV station, KQED, called “Calibration,” and the public broadcasting system out here, NET, which it was back in the day, was playing it one night. 

It was an in studio thing where they played “Candyman” and “St. Stephen” and some other tunes and I happened to be at someone else’s house with my mom. My mom was visiting my Aunt and I was with her. The adults were in another room chatting, I was watching TV and this show came on and I was riveted to it. I was like, wow, this is great, having no idea who the Grateful Dead were at that point in time. I knew who Jefferson Airplane was but, I didn’t know the Grateful Dead. While I was watching, someone said, ‘Oh, yeah, well, that’s acid rock. Are you into acid rock?’ I’m 11 years old. I said, I don’t know about acid rock, but I know I like this. So that was my first interaction with Grateful Dead music and that was it for a while. 

At 17 I realized that my sports career wasn’t going to go anywhere. I was into listening to music but I had not given any thought to playing music because I was always practicing or playing some sort of sport and never had any time for it. So I’m a junior in high school and I said to my mom that I’d like a bass guitar and a small amp for my birthday. We lived in an apartment, so playing an amplified instrument was kind of hard to do, but she said okay and she bought me my first bass guitar and amp in a record store. It wasn’t even a music store. It was a record store called Harmony Hut way back when. It was a nobrand bass that was just hanging on the wall and I thought it looked cool so I said that’s the one mom.

It was always bass rather than guitar. I kind of just gravitated to it. I liked the sound of it; and, also, when I decided that I wanted to play guitar, most everybody wanted to be the lead guitar player, and I said, you know what, I’m gonna play the bass, because nobody ever wants to be the bass player. So I took a different approach to learning guitar. I had a bass and didn’t learn to play sixstring guitar until after I had been playing bass. I did ultimately learn on the six-string, but bass has always been IT.

Because I go back to the Cream days and Mountain days, I liked Jack Bruce and Felix Pappalardi, because they didn’t play in the pocket like many bass players did. And then when I got turned on to the Dead, like REALLY turned on to the Dead, I thought, wow, this—this is even better. I mean, Phil is nowhere near the pocket. So I thought, if I wanted to be a lead guitar player at first and now I’m playing bass, I can play bass like a lead instrument if I learn how to play like Phil Lesh, and that was it. 

I was never much of a taper or tape trader, but my family had a business down at the shore in Wildwood, New Jersey, and I would be there all summer long working. From time to time I’d go up to these little stores that they had on the boardwalk where they’d have bootleg records. That was how I got turned on to some of the other live shows. Live Dead was the first Grateful Dead album that I bought and my second one was Europe ’72. Listening to “Prelude” and “Epilogue” just took me completely over the edge and not just Phil. I mean, I was amazed by Bob Weir’s guitar playing, and the way that the three of them could just interweave between each other without one guy playing lead and the other rhythm, and then just trade parts. Bobby would play all this really sweet pretty stuff in between Jerry’s leads. And Phil would be weaving stuff in and out of there and I thought, wow, this is great, I want to play like that. So that’s what really got me hooked. 

My first band was a group of high school friends from Clifton when I was in my senior year—I guess I’d gotten acceptable enough on the bass that I could play in a band. We didn’t really have a name, just played at parties and the like. But my first band that went out and played at venues was called Border Legion which is how I met Robby (Rob Eaton).

Rob and I’ve been friends since 1980. He joined the band in 1980 and we were playing a variety of music as well as our originals. By 1990 it became obvious that the music that people really wanted to hear us play, and that we had fun playing, was the Grateful Dead. So in 1990 we decided we would be a Grateful Dead band. We started getting gigs at places like the Wetlands and more people started to notice us and we developed a following. Around 1999 Rob got the opportunity to join DSO and moved to Colorado to join DSO and Border Legion kind of faded away. We did some stuff without Rob with a really talented guitarist and went back to playing a variety of music. You can’t replace Rob Eaton in the Bob Weir spot.

I had a successful career in corporate real estate, and that was keeping me quite busy at the time. So I had little opportunity to really play out and I never really joined up with another band. I was married, raising two kids, had a house and a mortgage…the white picket fence life for right around 30 years. 

So my first phone call from Dark Star came in 2001. They were in the process of replacing their bass player and Kevin (Rosen) hadn’t signed on yet. They had a week’s worth of shows scheduled for Colorado. So Rob calls me and he says, hey, we have some shows in Colorado, would you be able to come out here and play. We need a bass player. Well, I had five weeks of vacation so I said, yeah I can come out. We had a fun week and they offered me the gig right before I went back home, which I had to politely decline. I had other obligations to my family and just couldn’t afford to be out on the road. 

I knew that there were Grateful Dead bands in almost every city. It’s something about the music—it seemed like everywhere you went there was a Grateful Dead band. There wasn’t always a Who band or Beatlemania or a Stones band to see, but there was always a Grateful Dead band you could find somewhere. Obviously it’s the music itself and it’s because the music allows you to be you. If you’re playing the Beatles or Stones you’re expected to play it note for note and sing like they sing and the same thing goes for many of the “recording” bands. But Grateful Dead music and the whole aura around it allows you to play the songs the way you feel them—that’s why I think it continues to grow, because musicians can infuse their own way of playing into the music even though it’s, you know, the same music. The same music but different, if you will. Every Grateful Dead band that I’ve ever heard is different from the next. None of them sound the same, none of them. It’s the beauty in the structure of the music and the ability to have the improvisational space to stretch out and be yourself.

The second phone call from DSO call came in 2013. Occasionally, I would come to see them when they’d be around locally or if I was on the road doing my real estate thing and they were around. I’d stop in and see a show; and they’d allow me to come up and play at the end of night if they had some filler time. So we stayed in contact for 12 years. And once in a while there’d be chatter about me joining the band again…someday. 

So in 2013 three things had to happen for me to be able to join the band. First of all, Kevin had to want to retire, because there was no way I’d take the job under any other circumstances. I couldn’t live with that. The second thing was that I had to be unemployed, because my wife at the time was very skeptical about me joining the circus; we had a very fine, comfortable life and this was going to be uncomfortable. The final thing had to do with providing for my kids’ college. My daughter and my son are four years apart. I was just getting over paying for my daughter’s college education and my son was now getting ready to go to college! I’m thinking to myself how am I going to be able to pay for his college if I don’t have my corporate job making a decent steady income? Well, it so happens my son is a really, really great athlete and in a two month period, I got laid off from Guitar Center because they decided they weren’t going to build any more new stores on the East Cost, Kevin submitted his resignation to DSO and my son got a full ride to Lafayette College to play football. So all of the things that had to happen actually happened. That’s when I turned to my wife and I said well, I have to provide income somehow, and I know how I can get it. She said okay, go for it. And that’s the way it’s been ever since. I started my tenth year with the band at the end of this past September. 

I have four basses on tour. The first one that I play is a Guild Starfire, which Phil played in the early days. So for the early year shows, I play the Guild. Then in late ’69-’71 Phil moved from the Guild to a Gibson EB3, which somewhere along the line got stolen from him. So I have a Gibson EB3 that I play when we have shows between ’69 and ’71. Then in ’72 Phil started playing Big Brown, which was a modified Guild Starfire. So I pull out my Guild Starfire again and play that for the ‘72/’73 shows that we do. In 1974, Phil broke out his “Mission Control” Alembic bass which he played primarily between ’74-’78. I have a 1977 Alembic bass that I play for shows from ’74 to, say, ’79 and for our elective shows…it’s my “go to” bass. I also play an ’81 G&L, which looks a lot like a Fender Jazz Bass. It’s made by Leo Fender’s second company G&L. Phil used that bass in ’82. Since the G&L has active electronics and I don’t have a Doug Irwin bass like the one Phil used from ’79-81, I use the G&L for shows between ’79-’82. When Phil decided to play a six string, he started with the Modulus Q6 and that is the bass I play for any shows after ’82. I essentially, use the bass that best represents the era of Grateful Dead we’re playing.

I only spoke with Phil once, during the break of the Halloween ’79 show at the Nassau Coliseum. He had just gotten that Irwin bass; and so I just walked up to him and said hey Phil, nice new bass. So he says. “Thanks. How does it sound out there?” And I said, well, you can’t—you can’t hear it very well, but you sure can feel it. And he just grinned and went ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, and that was it. 

Playing bass and playing Grateful Dead music are two of the the joys of my life. It gives me the opportunity to play the music I love and affords me the opportunity play it the way I feel. I’ve certainly learned a tremendous amount from Phil’s playing and I try to honor his style the best way I can, but do it from my perspective, its loads of fun!!

I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun. Playing with the guys, you know, playing with Rob and Jeff and Rob up front, they’re true musicians. Personally, I’ve never taken lessons, I play by ear. I’ve learned all this stuff by osmosis over the years and I get to play off of the guys which is what Phil was doing all those years and still does. You know, it’s the counterpoint to everything else. You know what I’m saying? It’s playing the counter point. Hey, Jeff played this. Let me see if this works here. I don’t want to step all over him. No, I don’t want to do that. I want to make sure I enhance what this guy just did or inspire one of the other guys to do something interesting or maybe just take it to a different place. And when the other guys think, hey, that’s cool, let’s go there. It’s terrific! It fills my heart, it really does. And the fact that my family also really digs the fact that I do what I do, just makes it all the more satisfying and it’s just—like I said, I can’t believe that I have the opportunity to do this…and they pay me for it, pinch me!