Of the Grateful Dead, the late concert promoter Bill Graham said, “It’s not that they’re the best at what they do; they’re the ONLY ones who do what they do.” But when guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995, many bands stepped in to try and keep the flame alive. Among them was the encyclopedic Dark Star Orchestra, a group that didn’t just cover the Dead’s songs; it reproduced entire set lists from their many concerts.
DSO was co-founded by guitarist John Kadlecik in 1997. Fittingly, these days Kadlecik is on tour with Furthur, which stops at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester for a Nov. 3 show. Original Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh lead the group; Kadlecik, playing the bluegrass-informed, jazz-infused, crisp psychedelic notes made famous by Garcia and singing songs like “Deal,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Tennessee Jed,” serves as a very convincing Captain Trips.
But the guitarist didn’t set out to become a doppelgänger.
“I became a fan after being a professional musician already and studying four instruments over a 10-year period,” Kadlecik said by phone from his home in Takoma Park, Md. He played violin as a child and grew up on progressive rock bands — Pink Floyd, Yes and Rush.
At the time he saw his first Grateful Dead show at age 20, Kadlecik was listening mostly to eclectic guitarists like Joe Pass, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Django Reinhardt. He’d taught himself one of Garcia’s jazzier songs, “China Cat Sunflower,” but there was no inkling of what lay ahead when he finally saw them live.
“My biggest surprise was the presentation,” he says. “I thought it was going to be new age rock ’n’ roll, then I come to find out these guys has been doing it for 25 years, and they sound better and look more exciting than anyone else out there … and they were pioneers in advancing the technology of rock music — light years ahead.”
He and Scott Larned formed DSO as a weekday hobby in 1997, after the two realized that they shared an idea of recreating historically accurate Dead shows.
“Everyone in the band was also a full-time musician playing on weekends,” he said. “We just did it for our own fun, to see how close we could get to the live sound.”
There were other Dead tribute bands in the Chicago area where Kadlecik lived, but most of them only did hits.
“I felt like they castrated the repertoire,” he says. “Part of Dark Star’s engine was to put it out there, the psychedelic side, the improvisational side, the folk roots, the ballads.”
When ex-Dead members began coming to shows, they realized something special was happening. Keyboard players Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten and former backing vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux were the first to appear on stage with DSO.
“By the time I joined Furthur, Phil and Mickey [Hart] were the only ones who hadn’t sat in with us,” Kadlecik says.
Named after Ken Kesey’s Acid Test bus, Furthur formed in the fall of 2009; Kadlecik is a founding member. Asked to name the similarities and differences between two bands that both rely on the Dead’s catalog, Kadlecik laughs briefly.
“Well, the similarities are obvious, but there are differences there too,” he says. “Furthur is bringing new material in; that’s been happening from day one.”
The dynamic is also different from the group Kadlecik led for 12 years.
“This is Bob and Phil’s project, and I’m comfortable with that — they give me a lot of leeway to do what I do,” he says. “I’m honored to be a part of it, and happy to support their musical friendship. Dark Star was more our own — a fan band, basically.”
As a fan, Kadlecik names Wake of the Flood and From the Mars Hotel as favorite Dead albums. Though he found it bland at first listen, he also came to love the live Europe ’72 record.
“I didn’t have the full context, the music history that I have now,” he says. “So many of those songs were really cracking open a new style, not just for the Dead but for everybody.”
Even though it seems the most natural move he could have made, playing in a band that he long paid tribute to is sometimes surreal.
“For every moment that I thought it was inevitable, I had moments where I thought it was improbable,” Kadlecik says. “But it’s really exciting. I feel like Bob and Phil are still on the cutting edge and I really enjoy their energy, where they’re going with things now and their approach.”