Tribute Worthy

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

These days, the tribute band is a cultural institution.  Such is the profusion of these acts that there are booking agencies dedicated solely to tributes.  There is even a full-length documentary movie (Russ Forster’s “Tributary”) exploring the phenomenon. For many people, there is something appealing about seeing a show that recreates the atmosphere of a favorite band’s concert, especially when the genuine article is no longer around.

There are arguably more tributes to the Grateful Dead than any other band, testament to the band’s enduring popularity.  There are bands that perform straight Dead covers, Dead covers Irish style, and even original songs in the style of the Dead, but Chicago’s Dark Star Orchestra takes the tribute one step further.  The DSO recreates entire Grateful Dead concerts down to the set list, band line-up and even equipment used. 

The idea for the DSO came to founder John Kadlecik (“Jerry Garcia” in the band) while reading through the 1990 edition of “DeadBase,” the definitive compendium of Grateful Dead set lists and other information.  He thought it would be fun to perform a Grateful Dead show in its entirety.  At the time, he was playing in a tribute band called Hairball Willie, and was able to persuade them to play an entire second set as a competition.  The idea was that the audience had to guess the date of the show.  He recalled, “Nobody guessed correctly, but a few got the year right and the closest guess received some band merchandise.”  However, the experiment was not repeated and eventually Kadlecik went on to play with other bands.

In 1997, Kadlecik was looking to form a new band, and a friend recommended keyboard player Scott Larned.  “So I called him,” said Kadlecik, “and when he said ‘I’ve got this idea about covering entire shows out of DeadBase,’ I knew something was going to happen.”  Bassist Kevin Logan and vocalist Lisa Mackey were also recruited, and through a friend they booked for Tuesday night shows at a club in Chicago.  The first night only 78 people came to the club, but they obviously enjoyed it because the next week the audience had doubled.  By the fourth week, the club was filled to capacity, and by the end of the year DSO was the Tuesday night house band.  By the following spring, the band also had a Wednesday night residency at another club in Chicago and was playing weekend shows around the Midwest.

It wasn’t long before the band was receiving national attention, and by 1999, the DSO was touring full-time, playing around 250 dates per year.  Audiences of diehard Deadheads loved the experience of seeing a whole show recreated, and trying to guess the date, which would be revealed at the end of the concert.  The band began receiving requests for certain dates that had significance for fans, such as their first ever show, a birthday or anniversary.  Today, the DSO website even has a page where you can post date requests.

This Thursday, the Dark Star Orchestra will perform at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz.  Exactly which concert date will be played is, of course, a secret.  See if you can guess it before the end of the show.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, May 6, 2004

Back to Articles List