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Guitarist is grateful for Garcia

John Kadlicek of Dark Star Orchestra keeps Jerry's music alive
by: COURTESY OF DSO RECORDINGS, John Kadlicek of Dark Star Orchestra has made a career out of studying and interpreting the late Jerry Garcia.

To channel Jerry Garcia, one never knows what he'll discover, but John Kadlecik has done a pretty good job of permeating the man's aura.

Kadlecik plays Garcia, the late Grateful Dead frontman and guitarist, for the band Dark Star Orchestra, which tours the country playing the band's music. Dark Star stops in Portland Friday and Saturday, Sept. 25-26, at the Crystal Ballroom. A Chicago native, the 40-year-old Kadlecik has studied Garcia over the years, knows all the original Dead songs, but he tries to be his own man.

There was only one Jerry Garcia. There is only one John Kadlecik, who tries his best to play Garcia's music to the pleasure of Deadheads and others alike, while celebrating the life of one of rock's enduring stars.

'Subjective to listener impression' is how Kadlecik describes his guitar sounds and voice, compared to Garcia.

'I put a whole bunch of dots out there and let people connect in their mind how they want,' says Kadlecik, who isn't just some ripoff artist. He's well respected by living members of the Grateful Dead, as evidenced by his collaboration with rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bass player Phil Lesh in the group Further.

'Some people connect where they see fresh and original, and others nostalgic but faithful,' Kadlecik says. 'Others may think I'm trying too hard. I know the spirit I put into it. I know my own authentic connection to it.'

Kadlecik and Dark Star have played more than 1,700 shows over the past 11 years, including Portland several times. Their shows are based on past Grateful Dead concerts. The group recently released a DVD of the Dead's famous show May 8, 1977, at Barton Hall at Cornell University, titled 'Ithaca 30 Years Later.' It was a Dead concert unlike others because of the sound of the bootleg recording, enhanced with unique sound board operations - 'it was the best sounding show in their collection for the time,' Kadlecik says.

Dark Star doesn't do every song in order, nor use every mannerism or dialogue of the members, but simply commemorates particular performances.

'It was a nice lining up of the stars, so to speak, because we were going to be there on the 30th anniversary of the show,' Kadlecik says of Ithaca. 'We just sort of documented it, and it turned out to be a good performance on our part. We did a lot of improvising. The mayor presented the town with a plaque commemorating it as 'Grateful Dead Day.''

Given the loyalty of the 'Deadhead' fan base - especially those who were committed to traveling on tour with the rockers - Kadlecik and his six bandmates could be subject to some resentment.

Kadlecik says the band uses the Dead as its influence alone, just like most other bands and musicians do.

'I've randomly got some (negative) e-mails before,' Kadlecik says. 'To me, every artist has their favorite styles that they've rolled into their own style. In Jerry Garcia's case, you can clearly hear Freddy King, Del McCoury . . . John Coltrane was one of his influences.

'For this band, it's been a fun artistic experiment to stay in character, let one influence dominate. I don't worry about what other people think I should be doing.'

Kadlecik never met Garcia, but he has befriended Weir and Lesh. He saw about 60 Dead shows. He has also met 'Mountain Girl,' Garcia's ex-wife, and Tiff Garcia, his brother.

'They love it,' Kadlecik says of Dark Star and his portrayal of Garcia. 'His music lives and breathes. Mountain Girl said to me, 'It became something I took to heart as respect, of course I like it, I'm hardwired to like it.' I never take that for granted. I could let it go to my head, but I always respect that connection, not exploit it.'

Kadlecik marveled at Garcia's innovative use of the amplifier. Around 1973, Garcia started to use a high-tech setup that progressively become more high-tech. His favorite songs are 'whatever one is right for the moment,' but Kadlecik relishes the long improvisational Dead tunes like 'Dark Star' and 'The Other One.'

Through his studies of Garcia, he has found the man to be complicated yet simple.

'Jerry Garcia dressed in a way that allowed him to tour with the least amount of luggage, from about 1975 on,' Kadlecik says. 'He'd get to a show, pull out a T-shirt from backstage and put it on - if it was the right size. He dressed a little more hippie and flamboyantly in his early days in San Francisco in the 1960s.

'I barely dress like an artist, because it's about what I'm putting out as a musician. I have a lot of tie-dyes; I probably like tie-dye more than Jerry did.'

And, he doesn't really relate to the classic Deadhead. 'I don't know if I could tell you what the Deadhead lifestyle was,' Kadlecik says. 'I do my own lifestyle, which is definitely counterculture, beatnik hippie, rather than loser hippie. I read a lot and maybe have some more refined tastes in food and entertainment than some hippies I've met. It doesn't mean I think it's better, but not every Deadhead appreciates Bach or reading. It's where my values lie.'

The Grateful Dead still tours, sans Garcia - recently with former Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Hayes. The remaining Dead band has never asked Kadlecik to play with it, but he is delighted to play with Weir and Lesh in Further.

'Yes, it is a big deal,' he says.