Stu Allen & DSO: Making Beautiful Music

It seemed no sooner had I discovered Dark Star Orchestra than lead guitarist John Kadlecik announced he’d be leaving the band to tour with Grateful Dead founding members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Quite a coup for the man who founded the single best Grateful Dead “cover” band ever with DSO. But, for anyone who knows them, “cover band” seems too slight a term. It’s almost insulting. What DSO does is so much more than “cover” Grateful Dead songs. They use the Dead’s influence of improvisation to take those Grateful Dead songs and set lists and transport them to places they’d never been before. As far as energy, musicianship and inspiration goes, this is a band lacking in none of the above.

So, suffice it to say, I was seriously depressed to hear that Kadlecik was moving on. Selfish, I know, but I had truly missed the Grateful Dead musical experience and DSO brought it back to life with new breath in a way I never dreamed possible. But without Kadlecik, I thought to myself, the experience and joy would once again disappear from my life so far as the live experience was concerned.

I was wrong.

I didn’t manage to catch DSO touring with temporary guitarist Jeff Mattson. The recordings I’ve heard, however, sounded pretty damn good, I must confess, and I was surprised to say the least. But for this tour, they brought on the post-Jerry Garcia version of JGB’s (Jerry Garcia Band’s) lead singer and guitarist, Stu Allen. Skeptical with good reason, I almost had an “I dare you to knock me over,” attitude toward Stu. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this as attendance at Wednesday night’s DSO show at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles confirmed; the place was 3/4 full compared to last year’s packed house. “No Kadlecik? Why bother?” must have been on several lips of the unattended.

But I’ll tell you why.

Stu Allen.

And the rest of the incredible musicians we already know, love and admire.

They are a match made in heaven.

After years of playing in Garcia’s JGB shoes, Allen not only mastered many of Garcia’s signature licks, but he also learned how to take his time; to avoid the quick kill, the instant peak, to let the music find its feet and climb higher and higher until you’re standing atop Everest looking out over the world. Allen helped the already tight musicianship of DSO soar. And while very Garcia-like in his instrumentation, Allen still manages to find his own voice. And now that he’s playing in a Grateful Dead/DSO environment, he’s challenging himself even further and the beneficiaries of such an exercise are the audience who decide to show up and see what’s what.

If I had any personal disappointment with last Wednesday’s show, it would be that the original set list played was not strong on my favorites. Though I saw the bulk of my Dead shows in the 80’s, I’m more a fan of anything and everything pre-1979. Some great stuff came out of the 80’s, no doubt. But there are some songs that just never did it for me. And part of that may be that by the time the Dead wrote them/performed them, the band had lost its edge (IMHO) and the songs never grew to full maturity. I suppose that’s one of the glories of DSO. For the first time ever, some of the latter Dead songs are given a new lease on life. For me, it felt like I was hearing many of them for the first time. Garcia’s FOOLISH HEART, never a fave, grew to ecstatic peaks in the hands of DSO and Allen until the band appeared as if they were floating a solid foot above the stage! And we, the audience, were right there with them!

Part of the DSO experience I most love is the possibility that I will be transported to a time and place BEFORE I got to see the Dead myself (my first show was September 1979). While I can’t always be granted such a wish, I am thrilled to be standing in a theater seeing one of the best jam bands in existence playing ANYTHING. The fact that it might be a Dead show from the 80’s or 90’s is about as horrible as winning $10 million instead of $20 million. Either way, I won’t complain and I’ll happily show up to accept what’s being offered.

As far as Stu Allen goes, I don’t know what the other DSO band members are thinking, but Stu gets my more-than-enthusiastic vote. If you close your eyes, his singing sounds a hell of a lot like the later, heartfelt Garcia, while his guitar playing is celebratory and youthful. His sense of timing and his “hey, there’s no hurry” onstage nature elicited complete confidence and ease. It set the stage and I was ready to journey to whatever magical lands rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton had mapped out for the night. And while maybe not quite as polished as they had once been, with Allen in Kadlecik’s shoes, DSO still rocks as well as rolls. And this with only a handful of shows under their collective belts! Imagine where it might go once they get more familiar with one another. Let’s hope we get the chance to find out.

For a nice taste, check out this transcendent version of SHAKEDOWN STREET (split into two video parts) from the El Rey Theatre the other night.


And if you liked that, check out this rockin’ version of DEAL from that same show:

For even more, visit the Internet Archive for the entire show from the Grand Regency Ballroom on April 23, 2010, also with Mr. Allen.


Stu Allen & DSO: Making Beautiful Music

Wanna See HARRY BROWN? Avoid The Trailer.

For years my friends have mocked me for closing my eyes during movie trailers. My dear friend Bronni used to joke that whenever we’d go see a movie together and the trailers would start, I’d throw a paper bag over my head. While a wee bit of an exaggeration, the intention is not far off.

Years ago I realized that trailers were starting to show more and more of the film. Oftentimes right down to the climax! So while I now choose to close my eyes and patiently wait for the feature to begin, it’s my kindly mocking friends who are the ones bitching and moaning in the end that they don’t need to go see the film now. They saw the trailer.

Today’s example was a trailer for HARRY BROWN starring Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer. Luckily, I caught the film last year (it opened in the UK in 2009 even though it’s just now having its US theatrical release). This is a terrific film and made my Films From 2009 Deserving Honorable Mention list. So, having already seen the film, I was free to avoid any eye-closing (or paper-bagging) during this particular preview. And what a preview it was! Not a moment or beat in the film was left out. Nope. The entire film is present in the trailer. It is, in essence, the entire film boiled down to around 3 minutes. And yes, including those crucial surprise moments that should be saved for a paying audience who actually cherish the unexpected. But if you’ve already seen the trailer? Well, no surprises for you.

My grandmother, never one to waste time, would read the last page of a book before deciding whether or not she wanted to read the whole thing. “I make sure it’s got a good ending before I waste my time reading the whole damn thing only to discover the ending’s crap!” God bless her. If you can relate to Grandma Ruth, then by all means watch the trailer for HARRY BROWN. Me, I’ll continue to keep my eyes closed so that I may be allowed to experience a film as it was intended by its filmmaker; to unfold slowly, to draw me in, to captivate and intrigue. I want the journey. I want the unexpected. To state it simply, I want to watch the fucking movie.

But the age and art of great movie trailers has all but passed. Yes, occasionally one squeaks by; that inventive and alluring combination of images and moments that entice you to see the film, that stir your imagination and fill you with a sense of excitement and yearning. But those are as rare as a creative one-sheet. Another movie art that has all but died out, replaced instead by cookie-cutter molds that barely distinguish one film from another and look as though they were slapped together in Photoshop by some 12 year old in a hurry. And sadly, many of the films themselves seem to follow this same pattern of by-the-numbers expect the expected.

But it’s particularly criminal when it happens to a good film like HARRY BROWN. Because, regardless of whether or not the film goes to some expected places, I’d rather see it go there in the film itself where it’s meant to be, rather than in the film’s trailer, where it has no place. It’s disrespectful to the film, the filmmaker and, perhaps worst of all, the audience.

So if you happen to find yourself in a movie theater and the trailer for HARRY BROWN splashes across that silver screen and you haven’t seen the film yet, be prepared to do your best Helen Keller impersonation. Or at least have that paper bag ready.

Wanna See HARRY BROWN? Avoid The Trailer.

The Dead Arisen: The Grateful Variety From 1977-10-29

Another amazing show to coincide with today’s celebration of the return of Jesus Christ (which is, of course, the sequel to “Jesus Christ”). What? An atheist Jew can’t celebrate, too? Hogwash! I spent the bulk of the day doing my taxes and listening to the Grateful Dead from Evans Field House at Northern Illinois University on October 29, 1977. That’s both patriotic and spiritual all at the same time!

And while my taxes certainly leave a lot to be desired (namely money) this particular Dead show doesn’t. As I’ve said many times before, when Jerry Garcia was on, the whole band was on! And this is one of those nights. Straight outta the gate, Garcia is on fire and the rest of the band are keeping time and slamming their instruments right there with him. It’s a powerful display of energy.

This soundboard is a beautiful sounding puppy with only a few intermittent audience splices to cover those pesky reel flips. And luckily the audience recording is solid and gives us a welcome flavor of the crowd’s don’t-stop-now enthusiasm.

There are few things on this earth I enjoy more than hearing Jerry rip it up and this journey made my 2010 Easter Sunday a memorable one. I hope you find the time to enjoy it as much as I did!

And for the love of Jesus, don’t forget to turn it up real loud! And then check out the informal backstage interview with Garcia from the Paramount Theatre in Portland, Oregon from October 2nd, 1977. Unusually personal and casual. Just some guys hangin’ and chattin’ (and snortin’). A rare treat!

Just click the links below…

Evans Field House, Northern Illinois University, October 29, 1977

Paramount Theater interview, October 2, 1977

The Dead Arisen: The Grateful Variety From 1977-10-29

Backstage With Jerry: The Interview, Portland, Oregon, 1977.

The following is an informal pre-show backstage interview with Jerry Garcia from the Paramount Theatre in Portland, Oregon, October 2, 1977. Unusually personal and casual. Just some guys hangin’ and chattin’ (and snortin’). There’s a reason they opened with Casey Jones that night!

Jerry discusses the upcoming Egypt trip, his newest guitar, the politics of playing abroad, and just about any other subject that happens to arise.

What a joy!

And listen to the show that followed HERE!

Backstage With Jerry: The Interview, Portland, Oregon, 1977.

Condolences: Writer/Producer David Mills Dies

I just wanted to take a moment to mention that writer/producer David Mills, who brought us such amazing TV as NYPD BLUE, HOMICIDE, PICKET FENCES, ER and, quite possibly the best television show ever written, THE WIRE, passed away yesterday of a brain aneurysm. He was 48.

Mills’ newest show, TREME, which takes place in a post-Katrina neighborhood of New Orleans, will premiere April 11th on HBO.

Condolences: Writer/Producer David Mills Dies