Although he’s built a career on his musical impersonation of the late Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia, John Kadlecik has sworn off being the most famous of the so-called “Jerry clones.”
“I made a conscious decision to abandon my vocal impression of Garcia for life,” he says, speaking from his home near Washington, D.C. “For me it was a little like blackface, like playing a blues song with a put-on accent.”
The 46-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist will sound like no one but himself when he plays a solo show Monday night at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.
Not that the Garcia imitation didn’t serve him well. In 1997, on a lark, he co-founded the Dark Star Orchestra, a tribute band that became an overnight success re-creating Grateful Dead shows, playing the original set lists and adapting the Dead’s instrumental arrangements and vocal styles. Kadlecik held down what Deadheads call “the Jerry side” in the band.
“We went from a Tuesday night house band at a club in Chicago to touring the whole country within 18 months,” he recalls. “The Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) wasn’t something I did to start a business. It was something I did for fun. But it ended up causing me to put my artistic life on hold for 13 years.”
DSO, playing a heavy touring schedule of 150 dates a year, turned out to be popular not only with Deadheads, but also with most of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead and the band’s extended family. I first heard of them through Garcia’s former wife, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, who raved about them after she took in a DSO show in Eugene, Oregon, where she lives.
“My most nervous performance moment in my adult life was playing at the McDonald Theatre in Eugene,” Kadlecik recalls. “When Mountain Girl came up to the front row, I went, ‘Aaargh!’”
Kadlecik left DSO in 2009 when original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh drafted him to play lead guitar and handle the Garcia vocals in Furthur, an offshoot band they formed to keep the Grateful Dead’s song book alive after Garcia’s death in 1995. Kadlecik almost missed the biggest break of his career when the email invitation to join the band landed in his spam file.
“The Furthur thing came out of the blue,” he remembers. “I wasn’t expecting it. It was a Bob and Phil show, but I think we hit it off pretty well. I was blessed that they gave me a third to half of the lead vocals.”
Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann was busy with his own band, 7 Walkers, at the time, but didn’t miss an opportunity to take a swipe at Furthur as just another Dead cover band. And in his memoir, “Deal,” he gratuitously disparaged Kadlecik as “a fake Jerry.”
Kadlecik, who had played with Kreutzmann in the past and thought they were on good terms, was taken aback.
“For some reason, he’s mad at me,” he says. “I don’t know why. I’d played with him. I even bought one of his paintings. I thought we got along great.”
Kreutzmann’s opinion is apparently a minority one. Grateful Dead scholar and author Blair Jackson admitted that he wasn’t keen on a Garcia imitator in Furthur’s lead guitar slot, but Kadlecik’s performance changed his mind.
“I’ve gone from being a non-committal skeptic to a genuine Kadlecik partisan,” he wrote on the Grateful Dead website, Dead.net. “He’s brought back that old familiar sound and feeling, and he’s also imbuing the music with a wonderful new energy and vitality.”
Kadlecik played with Furthur for more than four years until Lesh and Weir announced in the fall of 2014 that the band was kaput.
A year later, the “core four” — Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann and drummer Mickey Hart — thrilled the Deadhead world with the news that they would celebrate their 50th anniversary by reuniting for the last time in five Fare Thee Well stadium concerts. Kadlecik, who probably knew the Dead’s repertoire better than anyone outside the band, was in the discussion as one of the guitarists qualified to be the “Jerry” in the evanescent supergroup.
As we now know, the job went to Trey Anastasio, the lead guitarist from Phish, the group that succeeded the Dead as the country’s top jam band.
“I’m a fan of Trey’s and I think he was an excellent choice for that situation, although I don’t think he sounds anything like Jerry,” Kadlecik says. “From a historicity standpoint, for my generation, Trey’s the guy who has taken the psychedelic-singer-guitarist flag and planted it farthest down the road.”
In addition to his solo shows, Kadlecik has high hopes for his latest project, the Golden Gate Wingmen, a group he formed last year with bassist Reed Mathis and former Furthur bandmates Jay Lane on drums and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards.
The Wingmen had barely gotten off the ground when they had to go on hiatus while Chimenti played keys for the Fare Thee Well shows and then went out on tour with Dead & Co., the band that joins Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann with guitar hero John Mayer.
Kadlecik may be disappointed with the way things have turned out in the Grateful Dead world recently, but he remains optimistic that he’ll have another chance to show that he’s more than a Jerry Garcia sound-alike.
“I’m still hoping to jam with the core four some time,” he says. “I’ve been living and breathing the group improvisation thing in different contexts since the late ’80s. I’d love a chance to have a one-hour jam with those guys just to see what would happen.”
Contact Paul Liberatore at email@example.com or 415-382-7283, follow him @LibLarge on Twitter, read his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/marinmusicman