What’s in the Mix? The Dead, Jerry and a lot more | AspenTimes.com
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What’s in the Mix? The Dead, Jerry and a lot more

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

John Kadlecik says he is definitely not tired of playing Grateful Dead songs and Jerry Garcia guitar licks, not at all. It would be understandable if he were. For nearly six years, Kadlecik has been lead guitarist and singer for Dark Star Orchestra, which has made a good living re-creating Dead shows – in their entirety, song for song. In other words, Kadlecik has been Jerry, at least for three hours a night, up to 200 nights a year. But he hasn’t tired of the role, relying on the nightly segment of “Space” – that open-ended part of all Dead concerts – to give him the freedom to play as he pleases.”We get plenty of opportunity for unstructured, unscripted jams,” said Kadlecik. “And that’s a treat, because I’ve always pushed for that in all the bands I’ve ever been in. It’s nice to have a license to do 20 to 30 minutes in the second set to do what you want.”All of which doesn’t mean that Kadlecik doesn’t want the chance to stretch out a little. Kadlecik has tried to do so: When Dark Star Orchestra first started performing, as yet another Dead tribute band, he tried to keep his other band Wingnut, which played original music, together. He has done some gigs with his bluegrass band, the Dime Store String Band, in which he plays fiddle and mandolin. He formed the JK Band, which played exactly one date. But Dark Star Orchestra has been so successful, playing in the country’s largest clubs, major festivals and even small amphitheaters, that the side projects have been pushed to the side. Enter the Mix, Kadlecik’s latest effort to expand his creative terrain. The band begins its first-ever tour with a show on Thursday, July 10, at the Double Diamond. The group follows with dates in Vail, Denver and Albuquerque before Kadlecik rejoins his Dark Star Orchestra mates for a three-show run through Colorado.In fact, the Mix isn’t exactly a sharp departure from Kadlecik’s regular gig. The new band features players intimately familiar with the Dead’s material and methods. Joining Kadlecik are Dark Star Orchestra bassist Kevin Rosen; keyboardist Melvin Seals, who put in a decade with the Jerry Garcia Band and has been leading the Garcia Band tribute band, the JGB Band, since the late ’90s; drummer Gregg Anton, leader of San Francisco band Gregg’s Eggs and a songwriting collaborator with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter; and guitarist Jeff Pevar, who has put in time with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil & Friends and the Dead tribute band Jazz Is Dead. The Mix’s repertoire will likely consist of Dead and Garcia Band covers, other covers (likely including John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me,” a Kadlecik selection), and some original tunes. The final song list won’t be known until the group has rehearsals and meetings, said Kadlecik. But he added that he is looking forward to getting some new material to dig into.”You get to a certain point, you need to stretch a little,” he said. “It works better for Dark Star Orchestra to play fewer shows per year, which is what we’re doing. A certain kind of creativity gets scratched.”Kadlecik said he expects the Mix shows to be more along the lines of the Jerry Garcia Band – that is, a lot of cover tunes from a wide variety of sources, and just a few selections each night from the Garcia/Hunter songbook.A big part of the reason Kadlecik hasn’t tired of resurrecting the Dead night after night is that he believes in the Dead ethos that each show is built on a spontaneous exchange between band and audience. Each show is about something more than the band singing the songs and playing their instruments.”I’m into the musician-audience creative connection,” he said. “I think there’s definitely something to the Dead audience, where the audience is more a part of the show than with any other band. The audience are the key collaborators as much as the band. It’s not the band saying, `Look at us, look at us,’ trying to keep the audience’s constant attention.”It took awhile for the Grateful Dead to get Kadlecik’s attention. In fact, rock music was not on Kadlecik’s radar as a child. A student of classical violin, Kadlecik had almost no interest in popular music until he began listening to his parents’ Beatles records at the age of 13.At 15, Kadlecik asked his violin teacher about improvisation. “He didn’t have any answers for me,” said the 34-year-old Kadlecik, who grew up in Davenport, Iowa, and later the Chicago area. So when his parents went out of town for a week, leaving him with a friend who spent a lot of time working, Kadlecik spent the week teaching himself guitar. A year later, Kadlecik’s mother bought him a guitar and amplifier, and Kadlecik dove into rock guitar.In the late ’80s, Kadlecik finally turned his attention to the Grateful Dead, and learned the Dead’s “Chinacat Sunflower” off of the “Europe ’72” album. He knew he was onto something he liked, but was hesitant to copy Garcia’s style whole hog. “I resisted it for a while, trying to go after that style – even though I was hearing something that no other guitar players around Chicago were going for,” he said. Resistance became futile after Kadlecik saw his first Dead show in 1989 at the Rosemont Horizon in suburban Chicago. “It was like a switch got flipped,” he said. “I got what they were going for immediately.”Kadlecik soon joined a band, Hairball Willie, which played some Grateful Dead covers. But Hairball Willie was doing its own interpretation of Dead songs, and Kadlecik wanted to attempt something closer to the Dead’s actual arrangements, Garcia’s actual singing and guitar parts. In 1997, he got what he wanted with the formation of Dark Star Orchestra. The band began with once-a-week gigs at Martyr’s, a Chicago club. The gimmick that set Dark Star Orchestra apart from other Dead cover bands – playing entire, actual Dead shows, song for song, in pure Dead fashion – was quickly embraced. By the turn of the millennium, the group was touring constantly and playing bigger venues. (For data fanatics, the first show was on Nov. 11, 1997, when Dark Star Orchestra played the Dead’s Oct. 8, 1981, show from Copenhagen’s Forum Theater.)Dark Star Orchestra has since had occasional encounters with their mirror images. They’ve jammed with Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten. They have filled large halls such as the Boulder Theatre and New York’s Irving Plaza. And Kadlecik has watched as the Dead’s long, strange trip has gotten stranger and longer, as fans flock to see a cover band.”I’m not surprised at all,” said Kadlecik. “I’m surprised to hear those secondhand stories, from inside the Dead, that they thought the music would go away. I think they were culturally more significant than the Beatles. “They were real tied in to the American music history. And they lived and breathed it, not the way, say, archaeologists would approach it. The lyrics, the chord changes, the melodies, are timeless.” Like Dark Star Orchestra, Umphrey’s McGee is a six-piece Chicago jam band that got its start in late 1997. The similarities end there; Umphrey’s McGee is a most original outfit.On their latest CD, “Local Band Does O.K.,” Umphrey’s McGee shows influences from a huge spectrum of bands: Frank Zappa and Steely Dan, bluegrass and hard funk, Phish and maybe a tiny bit of Grateful Dead. Guitarist Jake Cinninger is often cited by fellow musicians as among the most talented players on the jam-band circuit. Umphrey’s McGee performed at the inaugural Bonnaroo Festival last summer; they were also featured at South by Southwest, the High Sierra Music Festival and HarvestFest. The band finally makes its Aspen debut at the Double Diamond on Thursday, July 17. Other upcoming concerts of note: New Monsoon, a California septet creating a major buzz in the jam world, plays Friday evening, July 11, in Aspen Highlands’ Freestyle Fridays series; later that night the band is at the Double D. Smokestack, yet another Midwestern jam band, also pulls extra duty in the valley: The jazz-leaning quartet plays the Feral Book Cafe on Wednesday, July 16; the Freestyle Friday series on Friday, July 18; and the Black Nugget in Carbondale on Friday and Saturday, July 18-19. After a quick trip to other parts of the state, Smokestack returns to the valley for appearances at Carbondale Mountain Fair on July 27, and a two-nighter at the Double D, Monday and Tuesday, July 28-29.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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