Dark Star Orchestra ensures the Grateful Dead experience will 'not fade away'
What was distinctive about the Grateful Dead was the band's improvisational approach to a style of music rooted in American-born jazz, rock 'n' roll, blues and bluegrass. The Dead's cult-like following, dubbed Deadheads, loved the fact that sounds and set lists would vary with each show, contrary to the status quo where material is performed live much the same way it is heard on the radio or through studio recordings.
The day the music died for Deadheads was in 1995 when the band's irreplaceable leader, Jerry Garcia, passed away to end its 30-year run. Two years later, though, a group materialized out of Chicago that recreates Dead concerts in exacting detail, replicating set lists song for song as they were performed on a specific date in a specific town and venue. The band, Dark Star Orchestra (DSO), goes to such degrees as seeking out instruments and equipment ideally suited to whatever timeframe they're recreating during the Dead's evolution.
"We try to rotate between four distinctly different eras so that a city, in the course of three or four visits, gets to see all sides of us," says DSO founding member and lead guitarist John Kadlecik. "And in a way it's a historical perspective that allows even those fans who may have seen the Dead hundreds of times to experience shows they might never have seen."
Recently back from a string of sold-out European performances, DSO will play the House of Blues at Showboat on Wednesday, July 30, at 8pm. Along with Kadlecik, the group includes rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton, bassist Kevin Rosen, vocalist Lisa Mackey, drummer Rob Koritz, drummer Dino English and keyboardist Rob Barraco. The band takes its name from the Dead song "Dark Star," and a jazz-rock fusion group from the 1970s called the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Since its inception it has performed over 1,500 shows primarily in cities throughout the United States. Its recent European tour, and its upcoming appearance in A.C., is partially to promote the release of the band's double-DVD set entitled Ithaca 30 Years Later, which depicts DSO recreating one of the Dead's most popular performances in Ithaca, N.Y., on May 8, 1977.
Kadlecik says a lot of consideration is put into the structuring of which Dead show is to be reproduced in what city and when. Thus far no two Dead set lists have ever been replicated by DSO, at least not on purpose.
"We've gone through a lot of processes over the years," he says. "In the beginning it was just sort of a collective 'What do we want to play next week?' It involved a lot of exchanges of tapes and asking around if anyone has a tape to a particular show, or if not the actual show, do they have the set list from a particular show. I prefer not to have the actual show, but rather to have access to other versions of all the songs that we're going to play from the same year, and then just sort of interpolate from there.
"We're playing a lot more shows now than we were in the beginning," adds Kadlecik, "and now it's more about trying not to repeat songs night to night first, and second not repeating set lists similar to what we played the last time we were in that city."
Throughout its history, the Dead at times played with one drummer and other times two; had a female vocalist from 1972-'79; and performed with five different keyboardists between 1965 and '95. DSO does not attempt to match Dead set lists note for note throughout its entire metamorphosis, but instead emulates the basic band mode it was in at a particular point in time with as much detail as it can muster. The name of the city, venue and year being replicated are not revealed to the audience until the performance is over.
"Some touchstones are put in place there," says Kadlecik. "Emulating styles is just another basic skill of a musician, and to me getting stuck on one style is a limitation. The group style is a combination of all the individual styles, and outside the realm of style there's content, which is the actual note choices, themes and musical ideas that come through. Those things transcend any styles and that's the true improvisational aspect of it. So style might be likened to the brushes and canvas, and content would be the mountains, trees, bowl of fruit or mosquito being smashed on a windshield that you choose to paint."
Several surviving members of the Grateful Dead have joined in with DSO on stage, among them drummer Bill Kreutzmann, vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay, keyboardists Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten, and rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir. After jamming with DSO, Weir was quoted in a 2002 Rolling Stone magazine article as saying: "A couple of times when I had my back to John [Kadlecik] and he started to sing, I had this weird sense that it was Jerry [Garcia]."
One show the band has never replicated was the Dead's July 9, 1995 performance at Soldier Field in Dark Star Orchestra's hometown of Chicago -- Garcia's last. Asked if they ever intend to replicate it, Kadlecik replied, "I have no idea. I really don't like to waste my time visualizing endpoints."
For more on the band, check out its Web site at www.darkstarorchestra.net
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