Taking the art of tribute to a rarely seen level of detail and borderline-obsessive accuracy, the Dark Star Orchestra has made a career out of recreating actual Grateful Dead set lists, song for song, with a rotating lineup and an array of different gear configurations to capture various periods of the band's sound with painstaking precision. In other words, it's pretty serious stuff.
How serious? Serious enough to sell out venues across the country, book major festivals like Langerado and Bonnaroo and keep the band playing hundreds of shows a year. With more than 1,500 gigs under its belt, Dark Star has even played with members of the original Dead, including Bob Weir, who later said he had a "weird sense it was Jerry" when he heard vocalist John Kadlecik.
Last May, the band went even further, recreating a 1977 Dead show in the town it was performed, 30 years to the day. It was a fanatical scene, complete with local TV news crews and a ceremony where the town's mayor introduced the Dark Star Orchestra and officially declared May 8 "Grateful Dead Day." To be fair, though, it wasn't just any show.
"That particular date is legendary among Deadhead tape traders," explains Kadlecik. He notes that the recording became something of an underground hit among the nascent tape-trading community, and it was that same fandom that helped establish the audience for tribute acts such as Dark Star.
It was Kadlecik who developed the idea for Dark Star nearly two decades ago after stumbling across a book called Deadbase -- which lists nearly every set list from the band's 40-year career. Kadlecik immediately knew he was on to something.
"I thought, 'Oh, it'd be cool to get a band together that could cover those!'" he remembers. "That stayed on my backburner throughout the 1990s."
Then, in 1997, things finally fell into place. Shortly after quitting another Dead tribute act called Uncle John's Band, Kadlecik was introduced to keyboardist Scott Larned and the two began working on Dead covers with Kadlecik's former band mate, bassist Kevin Rosen. Coincidentally, Larned also knew a club owner looking for a house band, and the rest, as they say, is history. Kadlecik contacted friends to fill out the band, rehearsals ensued, and the band settled on a set list to play.
"We picked a show from 1981 to try and cover, and we recorded it for the club owner," he recalls. "He loved it, and he booked us for eight Tuesdays. By the end of it, the place was sold out with a line out the door."
Nearly 11 years later, the Dark Star Orchestra is bigger than the band ever expected, complete with an ever-growing base of dedicated fans, some who follow the band from city to city. The group has even survived a few Dead-like changes in line-up, most notably the 2005, mid-tour death of Larned.
Kadlecik says they keep they try to keep their fans in mind, minimizing distances between shows and meticulously organizing set lists to keep things fresh. After 1,500 shows, that would seem a daunting task, but Dark Star has developed a few guidelines to deal with this problem.
"We try not to repeat songs night to night and we try not to repeat songs that we played in a city the last time we were there," Kadlecik explains. "We also try to cycle the different periods of the Dead from town to town. And about one out of every five shows or so we make up our own set list, just to keep touch with that original feeling of not knowing what's coming next."
So a sense of originality does have a place in the Dark Star Orchestra, even as the band recreates original sets. Kadlecik says that despite their reputation for mimicry, the real emphasis is on capturing the broader sound, not on playing the songs note for note.
"We try to get the sound of the period more than we try to get the actual show," he notes. "It's about embodying the essence of that period of their history, and we do it in an improvisational way. We might change the tempo, and we do different solos and jams and try to be in the moment."
Kadlecik admits that this method can produce varying results. "We can end up playing a great show when they played a mediocre show, and we might play a really awful show where they played a spectacular show. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason."
For thousands of Grateful Dead devotees, there doesn't have to be. The Dark Star Orchestra is keeping the music alive, and that's more than enough.
[Dane Smith is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: The Dark Star Orchestra with The CodeTalkers
what: Grateful Dead tribute band
where: Orange Peel
when: Thursday and Friday, Feb. 28 and 29. 9 p.m. ($24 or $35 for a two-night pass. 225-5851 or www.theorangepeel.net)