ASPEN - Filling the shoes of Jerry Garcia, the late guitarist of the Grateful Dead, is a tall enough order. But Stu Allen faces another challenge on top of trying to play Jerry.
Allen makes his debut as the singer-guitarist of the Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra Wednesday at Belly Up Aspen, and he'll have not only the ghost of Garcia lurking in the shadows, but also that of John Kadlecik. A co-founder of Dark Star Orchestra, Kadlecik filled the Jerry role for 12 years, and not only led the cover band to extraordinary recognition - among the guests who have joined them onstage over the years are most of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead itself - but also worked his way up the musical chain of the Dead world. Kadlecik is currently lead guitarist and singer in Furthur, a new group featuring the Dead's Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.
Allen, though, is putting all thoughts of his immediate predecessor aside. His focus is on occupying the musical space created by Garcia.
"I don't think about [Kadlecik] as much as Garcia, that's for sure," the 37-year-old Allen said from his home in St. Louis. "As far as people's expectations, expectations from fans, I'm thinking more about the Deadheads than about the Dark Star Heads. I'm thinking about the bigger scene that we're all in."
Allen first entered that scene, as a fan, in the late '80s, when friends from his Kentucky high school turned him onto the Grateful Dead's music. "But you really don't get it till you go," Allen said, repeating the oft-stated view that the Dead experience is inchoate until you've gone to your first live performance. Allen full initiation didn't come until the spring of 1989, when he took in his first show. A beginning guitarist at the time with an affection for Led Zeppelin-type blues-rock, Allen found it daunting to incorporate Garcia's lyrical, improvisatory style into his playing.
"It didn't have an immediate impact," he said, "because it was so different, it took a while to get what was happening."
By 1996, a year after Garcia died and the Grateful Dead called it quits, Allen had the licks down well enough to form a Minneapolis-based Dead cover band, the Jones Gang. (The name came from an onstage gag, at a 1977 concert, when Lesh introduced the band as the Jones Gang.) In 2004, Allen was invited to join the JGB Band, led by Melvin Seals, the longtime keyboardist in Garcia's side project. Allen has also been a member of the Schwag, a Missouri-based band that pays tribute to the Dead, and has performed with other members of the extended Dead family, including guitarist Mark Karan, keyboardist Mookie Siegel and drummer Greg Anton.
Like Kadlecik, Allen has tried to capture the spirit and flavor of Garcia's playing, without doing a note-for-note imitation. "It's trying to do the same thing, which is play great music in this way that we know works, and that we know we love," Allen said. Over the last months, however, Allen has focused more heavily on nailing Garcia's tone, and has adjusted the equipment he uses, as he geared up to do a month-long tour with Dark Star Orchestra. (Jeff Mattson, who played in a band led by former Grateful Dead singer Donna Jean Godchaux, played guitar in Dark Star Orchestra's recent winter tour.) It seems a concession to what fans have come to expect from Dark Star Orchestra, which has built its reputation on playing an uncanny replication of the Dead experience - oftentimes down to playing song-for-song recreations of actual Dead concerts.
Still, Allen says his presence should bring Dark Star Orchestra to a different place. He and Kadlecik may be shooting for the same thing - to pay tribute to the playing of Garcia - but each has his own way of doing so.
"My tone is different than his," Allen said, noting that he has seen Dark Star Orchestra play many times, but hasn't played or even rehearsed with the band. "It's our own impressions of the same thing. And we certainly have different voices. We'll have slightly different interpretations, different focuses, different memories, different ideas of what's important."