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.
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.