Dark Star Orchestra: The Music Never Stopped

When Jerry Garcia passed away on August 9, 1995, it signified the end of one of the most successful, durable bands in American music history. To the bands fanatical followers or “deadheads” as they have been affectionately called, and music fans alike, this brought a heartbreaking end to the exploratory, improvisational touring musical mecca that was the Grateful Dead. Since ’95, the surviving members of the band have regrouped under different identities attempting to recapture the spirit of the Grateful Dead, which they have in a sense. But gone forever is the band that developed the song, “Dark Star,” into a springboard for some of the most imaginative improvisation during the late 1960s; discovered their musical inventiveness in Europe ‘72; explored uncharted improvisational territory in May of 1977; realized new musical heights at Alpine Valley in 1989. Gone forever, that is, until you listen to the Dark Star Orchestra.

The Dark Star Orchestra may initially appear to be a Dead cover band, playing Grateful Dead songs with similar jams and segues. But upon further examination, one realizes the Dark Star Orchestra (or DSO) is much, much more than a Dead cover band. The band is so familiar and knowledgeable on the Grateful Dead and their structure, styling, and tendencies that on any given night it’s nearly impossible to distinguish their sound from the actual Grateful Dead’s. DSO differs from other bands in that they play entire Grateful Dead concerts from start to finish, copying the setlist song-for-song and vividly reproducing how the Dead sounded on that particular night. One night, fans might be treated to a show from Winterland ’72 and the next night, Hartford Civic Center ‘83. Curiosity and questions about what show the band will play leads fans to speculate before and during the show. But to the veteran fan, there are clues… DSO set’s up their stage and uses similar equipment as to how the Dead did for that particular show. Is Kevin Rosen, DSO’s bass player who plays Phil Lesh’s part, standing far stage left, in what’s commonly referred to as the “philzone?” Phil and Jerry Garcia switched spots onstage on April 2, 1982, now putting Phil on stage left, or the “philzone,” where he remained onstage until 1995. Or is there an extra microphone set up onstage? If so, Lisa Mackey will be performing with DSO as Donna Godchaux, who was with the Dead from 1972-1979. These are only two of many clues fans have in guessing when the Grateful Dead originally performed the show.

The idea of Dark Star Orchestra came while guitarist John Kadlecik was paging through Deadbase, a book that documents Grateful Dead setlists. “I played in different Grateful Dead cover bands, and each had different approaches to Dead songs,” John said in a recent Phreshwater.com interview. “I wanted to play the style the Dead created it in.” Kadlecik’s original interest in the Dead goes back to a friend turning him on to Dead music many years ago. “My first show was Rosemont ’89,” he says. From there, John, who had played guitar since he was a teenager, started playing in various Grateful Dead cover bands. “I had always been interested in jazz,” he claims, which obviously helped in his learning to emulate Jerry Garcia’s guitar style. “The first solo I learned note-for-note was on the Dead’s Europe ’72 version of “China Cat Sunflower.”

Reproducing a Grateful Dead concert musically is no easy task, however, since Grateful Dead concerts varied considerably during the band’s 30-year touring career. There were up to 120 songs at one time in the Dead’s live performing repertoire. Each era of the Dead’s performing career had “different unique terms,” Kadlecik affirmed. When examining Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing throughout Dead’s different “eras,” one notices a vast differentiation in how effects, pedals, midi effects, and developing technology all influenced his playing. Out of all the shows they play, Kadlecik feels he “has the flexability to interpret the late 1980s styling of Jerry’s guitar playing.”

But how does the band choose what show to do and avoid replaying the same show? “Scott Larned (keyboards) does show picking through Deadbase,” Kadlecik states. The band keeps track of shows they have already done. Interestingly, the band also occasionally performs original setlists, which gives them the capacity to try new things like playing songs that normally wouldn’t be played in a particular order or segment of a show. DSO has recently begun performing Jerry Garcia Band concerts. This becomes more challenging for Kadlecik because he must then do all the singing, in addition to the “busier guitar work and more solos,” he said.

In June of 2003, DSO released their debut album, 'Thunder and Lightnin', an original recording from the Oregon County Faire on July 12, 2002. The album was recorded and mixed by Betty Cantor-Jackson, known for her renowned Grateful Dead “Betty-Board” live recordings. 'Thunder and Lightnin’ is a brilliant example of DSO at their creative peak, replicating the Grateful Dead sound through an original setlist, including absolutely stellar versions of “Estimated Prophet", "Terripan Station", “Saint Stephen”, among many others. “The DSO live series is something the band hopes continues,” guitarist John Kadlecik said.

For someone who never was able to attend a Grateful Dead concert, DSO is a fantastic opportunity to witness what the Grateful Dead were capable of in concert. I’ll never forget the first time I saw DSO and heard John Kadlecik singing the Garcia coda during “I Know You Rider.” This brought chills to every bone in my body and a sense of joy in that I was able to experience this music live in person. Dark Star Orchestra will continue to tour, with each performance extraordinarily portraying one of the giants in American musical history, while at the same time adding their own fresh imprint on the music. As Bob Weir proclaims in the Grateful Dead classic, “The music never stopped,” and surely Jerry Garcia is smiling and watching over the Dark Star Orchestra in delight.

By: Peter Kolesari Article originally appeared on PhreshWater.com 09/03

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