Dark Star Orchestra has been reinventing and paying tribute to The Grateful Dead concert for almost a decade.
The band has had many special guests, including Dead members Bob Weir and Donna Jean Godchaux, sit in with them as they perpetually take their own version of the long, strange trip on the road.
Honest Tune.com caught up with lead guitarist and singer John Kadlecik at the closing Cincinnati stop on their summer 2007 tour.
Honest Tune: What was your first instrument, and how did you get started?
John Kadlecik: My first instrument was violin. I was inspired by the sound of violin on Beatles records as well as the Star Wars soundtrack, and I had a babysitter who would practice cello. My parents rented a violin, and enrolled me in my public elementary school string program in the fourth grade (1978). In high school I started to become fascinated with improvisation, but my instructors at the time had no advice for me. I started teaching myself guitar in my sophomore year of high school.
HT: Did you play in any bands previous to Dark Star Orchestra?
JK: I played in a bunch of garage bands between ’85 and ’89 doing classic psychedelic and hard rock before the Grateful Dead became my favorite band to cover. Then there was number of basement/garage Deadhead bands before I started playing regularly in Chicago area clubs with a group called Uncle Buffalo’s Urban Mountain Review. When that band split up, I joined Hairball Willie, an original jam band. I played with them from ’91- ’96 and while we played a lot of Grateful Dead songs, we also released several CDs of original music and covered all kinds of classic rock, psychedelic and folk songs. During that time I started my first bluegrass band as a side project called the Fox Valley Drifters, but we only played a handful of times.
I left Hairball Willie in ’96 to join a long running local Dead cover band called Uncle John’s Band, where I met Kevin Rosen (DSO’s bass player). While it was great to finally call myself a full time musician (UJB played 150 shows a year), I became dissatisfied with both their approach to Grateful Dead music and the inherent limitations of playing original music in a tribute band. I had started a side project called Wingnut with some friends and former bandmates, and left Uncle John’s band to make a go of it with them in ’97. I have also had bands concurrent with DSO including The Mix (with Melvin Seals and Greg Anton), the JK Band, the Dime Store String Band, Bug Juice, and my most recent side project: Firewheel.
HT: How many Grateful Dead concerts has Dark Star Orchestra covered so far?
JK: We have performed over 1400 times, but with various "elective" shows and repeats of particular historic setlists factored in, I would guess we have played between 1000 and 1200 different Grateful Dead setlists.
HT: What were some of the most memorable, and why?
JK: Well, probably the two most memorable shows that come to mind are the two shows we played with Bob Weir. The first time was a Rex Foundation benefit show at The Warfield in San Francisco. We played one of the three set Warfield shows from 1980 with an acoustic first set, and Bob joined us for the last 5 songs of the second set. The other time Bob played with us was more recently at The Fillmore (again in SF), and I had the honor of playing Jerry’s "Wolf" custom guitar for the night.
HT: How do you usually determine how to divert from the Dead’s setlists?
JK: Every four or five shows we do an "elective" night, and Rob Eaton and I take turns picking songs on the fly. Every few songs we check in with the other singers in the band to see if they are ready to jump in. Sometimes at the intermission we work up a sequence of songs to lead into drums, but even then we might "call an audible" and change songs mid set.
HT: What kind of instruments do you play to recreate Jerry Garcia’s sound?
JK: Mostly I play two electric guitars: a Paul Reed Smith and a Carvin. The PRS is a strat-style, bolt-on neck with a midi pickup for the guitar synth sounds, and the Carvin has a neck-thru style of construction more similar to an Alembic "hippie sandwich" guitar or Garcia’s "Wolf" guitar. They both have the same basic pick-ups and electronics. I also occasionally play a Steinberger- style Hohner headless guitar and a Fender Stratocaster.
HT: What kind of pickups and amps do you use?
JK: My PRS and Carvin guitars both have DiMarzio Super 2 pickups, which is what Jerry used from ’75 to ’95. The other guitars have stock pickups. My amp starts with a Fender Super 60 1×12 combo that I have customized the electronics on and gutted the speaker and power amp section (I do own my own guitar and amp electronics mods.) The Super 60 is then just a pre-amp, which feeds into an Ashley parametric eq and a Lexicon reverb, then into a QSC power amp. I also sometimes use a Hughes & Kettner Blues Master for a pre-amp. I have two different speaker arrays that I use for different sounds, situations, and moods. I have a Bag End 1×12, which I pair with either a homemade baltic birch 3×12, or a Tone Tubby 2×12. They are all loaded with JBL E120 speakers, but the Tone Tubby has JBL’s that have been reconed with their hemp speaker cone material.
HT: What is your inspiration for singing Jerry’s songs?
JK: I genuinely love these songs. The lyrics are timeless and universal and almost always have some personal connection or remembered feelings to hook into with emotionally. Some can be so powerful in a particular moment of relevance that it can be challenging to keep it together well enough to deliver. Others can occasionally catch me off guard technically speaking in a moment when my voice is not at 100%.
HT: What’s your favorite Jerry song?
JK: It changes day to day and mood to mood, but "Terrapin Station," "Eyes of the World," "Help on the Way," "Stella Blue," "Attics of my Life," and "Scarlet Begonias" are always high on the list.
HT: Do you have any unusual stories from the road?
JK: I’m not really sure what’s usual anymore. Last year after a show in Telluride, we left after the show in a snowstorm and had to stop halfway up the mountain because the bus lost traction. After a brief panic where we thought the bus was actually sliding backwards (it wasn’t), we had to sit tight until a plow came along. We followed the plow up to the top of the pass, and spent the rest of the night parked at the pass at 10,000 feet waiting for the down slope to be plowed clear.
HT: Do you plan on playing other Jerry material, like Jerry Garcia Band or the acoustic and bluegrass collaborative Grisman work?
JK: Actually, we once did a whole tour of JGB shows when Rob Eaton had a recording engineer commitment, and we learned 60-70 songs from the JGB repertoire. We sneak those songs in whenever we can.
And shortly after DSO first formed, I started a bluegrass band called the Dime Store String Band with some friends in Chicago, and we played quite a bit of the Old and In the Way repertoire.
Photos courtesy of Dark Star Orchestra