October 30, 2008

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Echoes of the Dead
Dark Star Orchestra re-creates concerts of Jerry Garcia and Co.

By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Forget what you think you know about tribute bands. With Dark Star Orchestra, there are no ridiculous costumes, crazy makeup or comical stage mannerisms. It’s all about the music. Dark Star aims to recreate the sound, set lists, arrangements and stage configurations of legendary rock band The Grateful Dead with almost fanatical precision.

“I don’t try and claim that we’re not a tribute band,” said vocalist-guitarist John Kadlecik, who, for lack of a better word, portrays front man Jerry Garcia. “But we don’t try and do a physical look. We do replicate the setups of each of their shows, including the placement of the musicians on stage. As fans ourselves, we are able to experience the different stage configurations of the band and see what made some shows better than others.”

Each Dark Star Orchestra show is different from the one before it, the band able to tap into 30 years of Grateful Dead performances at different times and in different incarnations. The group never announces what show they are going to recreate next, and they rarely play the same show twice.

“The thing that makes the Dead different from bands like Pink Floyd and Queen is that those bands had the same set list for every show,” Kadlecik said. “The Dead were pretty unique in that they might play something new from their album, or they might not play any new music at all. They didn’t allow themselves to stagnate — and though we know what songs we’re going to play in advance, we do mix things around, even era to era, to keep things fresh for ourselves too.”

For many tribute acts, materials from the original performers can be hard to come by, but DSO has been able to draw on The Dead’s impressive history.

“There is an abundance of stage photos available,” Kadlecik said. “They are one of the most documented bands in rock history in terms of photographs. They weren’t as restrictive as say, bands like Led Zeppelin were.”

Celebrating the 11th anniversary of its genesis as a group, Dark Star Orchestra will perform on Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord. The group’s formation has its roots in the unlikeliest of musical genres: classical.

“I started out playing classical music on violin, and then picked up the guitar to learn about improvisation,” Kadlecik said. “My instructor was a little stumped about that. I played in a band that did original and cover songs, but it wasn’t until 1989 that I came across this publication called DeadBase that prints all the set lists of the Dead. As soon as I saw it, I thought it would be neat to treat these entire set lists as compositions themselves, and soon started networking in Chicago to get a project together.”

The Capitol Center show will also celebrate the release of DSO’s new double DVD set, Ithaca 30 Years Later: The Video, which captures the band recreating one of the best-known shows in Grateful Dead’s history.

“The show and video were a kind of a special occasion,” Kadlecik said. “It was 30 years to the date of that performance, and the original was one that was very widely circulated in the taping community. For a lot of Grateful Dead fans, it was their first opportunity to experience it live.”

With a laundry list of successes to the band’s credit, including performances at this year’s All Good Festival, 10,000 Lakes Festival, Bonnaroo, and their 1,500th show, Dark Star has surprised many with its staying power as a legitimate rock band.

“I had no idea it would take off like it did,” Kadlecik said. “I watched other Deadhead bands really struggle to get audiences, even just to get booked. I was really motivated to get a tribute going that was made up of true Deadheads that were all good musicians and were all doing it for the music.”

So what is it about the music of the Grateful Dead that keeps people listening?

“It strives for universal trait in the human condition of going for the highest level of excellence that’s available at any given moment,” Kadlecik said. “The Dead worked to keep their lyrics timeless — there aren’t too many of their songs you would call dated. In the way that Shakespeare is still relevant to us today, the Dead always will be.”


The Dead come alive. Courtesy photo.

Dark Star Orchestra
When: Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 South Main St., Concord.
Tickets: $33, call 225-1111 or visit www.ccanh.com