Rolling Stone‘s interview series King for a Day features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and singers who had the difficult job of fronting major rock bands after the departure of an iconic vocalist. Some of them stayed in their bands for years, while others lasted just a few months. In the end, however, they all found out that replacement singers can themselves be replaced. This edition features former Furthur singer John Kadlecik.
In the years following Jerry Garcia’s death, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have worked with many incredible musicians who attempted to fill the enormous gap he left behind — including Trey Anastasio, John Mayer, Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, and Steve Kimock. Each of them brought something unique to the mix, but none of them managed to play Garcia’s parts with quite the same technical precision and stunning virtuosity as John Kadlecik.
The singer-guitarist followed the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band all across America in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and logged 12 years as the leader of the premier tribute band Dark Star Orchestra. In 2009, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir formed Furthur and invited Kadlecik into the fold. And if you ask many die-hard Deadheads, they’ll say that was the closest anyone ever came to recreating the magic of an actual Grateful Dead concert after 1995.
“I knew the parts in the songs really well,” Kadlecik says on the phone from his home in Washington, D.C. “I know how to render them from scratch, and not just play them back as memorized. It was easy for Bob and Phil to go, ‘Remember when we did this song like this? Well, let’s do it like that, but in this direction instead.’ At the same time, they did their best to stump me and they succeeded multiple times. They definitely pushed me to the limits of my listening abilities. It was pretty exciting.”
Kadlecik’s excitement for music goes back to his early childhood, when he was given a color-coded xylophone with a little book of instructions. “I have kind of autodidactic tendencies,” he says. “I basically taught myself the rudiments of reading music from this kid’s toy. I felt like I was learning a new secret language. It was just fun.”
Not long afterwards, he grew entranced by Beatles records and the original Star Wars soundtrack. He was also drawn to string instruments after watching a babysitter practice the cello. In fourth grade, instructors came into his class to give auditory hearing tests. “They played us this record,” he remembers. “And they asked, ‘Is this note higher or lower or the same as the first?’ I scored really well.”
He began playing the violin, and weekly visits to church at the behest of his stepmother taught him a lot about complex vocal harmonizations. It was the early Eighties by this point, and he was a brainy, Stranger Things-esque kid completely consumed by Dungeons and Dragons, science fiction movies, and tabletop strategy games. “I was a computer nerd,” he says. “I was studying and learning how to repair audio and digital electronics at, like, 10 years old. I even learned how to solder.”
His family moved from Davenport, Iowa to the Chicago suburbs right before high school. He quickly established himself as one of the most gifted musicians in the school orchestra, even if many of his new friends were baffled by his love of older bands like the Beatles. “They were like, ‘The Beatles are old, man. Why do you listen to that?” he recalls. “So they turned me onto the Cars, the Police, Styx, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.”
He also put down the violin and picked up the electric guitar, which he mastered in just a few months. But when he came across Grateful Dead songs in guitar magazines, he had no interest in learning them. “None of my friends were listening to them,” he says. “And the imagery seemed to be more similar to Motörhead and Judas Priest and stuff like that. There was a transcription of ‘Casey Jones’ in one of the magazines. I read “Driving that train/High on cocaine.’ At 16, I was like, ‘Nah.’”
After high school, he was given a scholarship to a local junior college with a strong music program. His thoughts drifted everywhere from finding a job in computers to enrolling at West Point. But music became a bigger and bigger part of his life, especially when he got into jazz and started reading hippie writers like Carlos Castaneda and Alan Watts. “I wanted to create a style of music that had the underlying spirit of the more interesting new age music,” he says, “but with the sounds and energy of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. And lyrics that would maybe allude, but not be too connected, to the ideas that I was reading in these books.”
Everything changed in 1989, when he finally saw the Grateful Dead in concert. He realized it was the music of his mind coming to life right before his eyes, and it started him on a journey that ultimately led to him joining forces with Weir and Lesh in Furthur. That group, in turn, would eventually morph into Dead and Company (who are kicking off their final tour next year), once Lesh decided he want to get off the road. But the “Jerry” role in that new configuration was filled by John Mayer, meaning that Kadlecik was out of his dream gig. He talked about it all in our candid interview.
Where exactly did you see your first Grateful Dead concert?
It was at the Rosemont Horizon on April 11, 1989. It was the first night of a three-show stand. I only had tickets for that show. I was home during the second night, and I was like, “I want to be there again.” And so I got tickets for the third night.
What struck you so heavily about these shows?
I’d seen Rush a couple of times. I saw the Cars. I saw Paul McCartney. I’d seen some big shows, but you could tell they were tightly scripted with a light show. And that’s impressive, but here’s a band that’s just calling songs as they feel them in the moment. Most bands go out on tour and maybe there’s one or two songs they alternate every other night.
It was also just the fact that it sounded so good, and the playing was so in the moment. There was a stream of consciousness approach to soloing, instead of an “I can wow you with my chops” kind of approach. The lyrics had deeper undertones and a sense of connection to history and to the folk tradition, which I didn’t really fully understand at that point in my life.
It wasn’t a nostalgia for old-timey instrument sounds. It was, “These are acoustic instruments, and I don’t need the Man’s electricity to perform with them. The Man can’t unplug me and end my show.” It’s kind of a radical attitude, not like what the Kingston Trio made it into.
How did your fandom grow in the years that followed your first show?
I was hooked. I had to go. But at that point, I was still more focused on original music. I played in bands where maybe we played some Grateful Dead, but we didn’t try and recreate any particular sounds. We just performed them as best we could with the instrumentation we had. Most of the early Nineties, I spent in a band called Hairball Willie.
I kept going to Dead shows since I wanted to see what they were going to do that night, and I wanted to be part of a scene that felt like it was on the cutting edge of human consciousness.
How many times did you see the Dead before Jerry died?
I saw the Dead about 50 times from 1989 to 1995. And I have friends who in the same time period saw 300 shows, so I don’t consider it to be that many.
Did you sleep outside and do the full Deadhead experience?
I did one complete tour in ’92 where we just took the time off. Spring tours at that point weren’t quite that cool. Not all shows were sold out. Tickets were easy to get. It wasn’t so much a big deal to show up without tickets. So we just planned to go and see what we could find. And the girlfriend I had at the time became my first wife. We sold silkscreen t-shirts and handmade candles and veggie burritos.
Did you see any shows toward the end, in the summer of 1995?
Yeah. I saw the very last show [at Chicago’s Soldier Field]. I saw a couple of shows that summer.
Did you sense that Jerry was not in great shape?
Yeah. I was definitely pretty sad at the last show. I had a sense that something was up. All of them used to make mistakes. Jerry would make mistakes, but he’d find a way to sort of make it into a musical joke. It didn’t feel like he was trying to turn his mistakes into jokes anymore. He was just like, “Fuck it.”
Do you recall hearing the news that he died?
Yeah. Like a lot of people, I probably didn’t believe it at first. I also had a pretty severe physical reaction when [keyboardist] Brent [Mydland] died. It happened before the news broke. I threw up from drinking too many olives the previous night. And nothing happened when Jerry died, so I was suspicious. [Laughs.] That’s superstitious, and I’m not one of those people that think he’s still alive, like the Elvis Presley thing. But I do remember getting the news. I was like, “No way. Now what?”
Tell me about getting together with the tribute band Uncle John’s Band.
I joined Uncle John’s Band late in 1995. Hairball Willie had gone through some changes. Even though I wasn’t an original member of Hairball Willie, I was now sort of its band leader, and looking for new players. It was taking off, but then a couple of people weren’t really ready to jump on it when it was taking off. They were cautious. They didn’t want to play in the city for silly reasons. And so I started looking for other things. Somebody ran an ad in the Illinois Entertainer, which is the Chicago area alt-monthly music and entertainment paper. I responded to it, and got the gig.
How did that roll into the start of Dark Star Orchestra?
The seeds of Dark Star Orchestra came from my audition with Uncle John’s Band, because the bass player wanted to set up an informal jam with this other guitar player that had been fired twice from Uncle John’s band. They were old buddies.
I hadn’t even played my first gig with Uncle John’s Band yet and had this jam with Mike Maraat and Kevin Rosen, who ended up being the starting string section of Dark Star Orchestra. It was pretty good. We just sort of fumbled our way through some some of the big, major pieces in the [Dead] repertoire. Mike immediately was like, “Let’s just form a band now.” I was like, “I just joined a band.”
The thing with Uncle John’s Band was they had been around for a while, and their reputation they had built was little bit more with the North Shore yuppies at this point. I thought I could come in and be this deep suburban, forest-preserve hippie and see if I could transform it, but that didn’t really work.
The bass player, Kevin, was pretty deep into the Grateful Dead, but the other two players, including the guy that was kind of the bandleader at the time, had only seen a couple of shows. They had been hired by the previous bandleader. They had hard ideas about keeping it as a quartet. And I was like, “It’s never gonna grow as a quartet. If we’re just catering to the yuppie crowd and just playing the hits and the uptempo songs, it’s never gonna break through.”
One of them said, “Well, we could do originals as Uncle John’s band, and Uncle John is just sort of a mascot character.” I was like, “It’s Jerome John Garcia. Jerry is Uncle John. If we’re not working from that foundation…”
So I kind of started to lose interest, and I put in notice without really anything to fall back on. After a year, I was starting to have these informal jams in my basement with the guitar player that was in the final arrangement of Hairball Willie and a bass player I’d known since since my earliest days of getting into playing heavy music.
We formed a group that we called Wing Nut for a little bit in 1996 to 1997. But in that window, there were more jams with Mike Maraat and Kevin Rosen. We were trying out different drummers, and then a mutual friends introduced us to the original keyboard player of Dark Star Orchestra. I’d been hearing about him for a few years, but had never actually played with him. He was down with the idea of doing complete Dead setlist shows also.
How did that idea first happen?
It came to me the first time one day. I thought it would be really fun to get a band together and do entire shows. I had actually done that once with Hairball Willie. We did a second set, and we just did it once. We made a contest out of it to see who could guess what show it was. But Hairball Willie wasn’t the right band to do that as a first-time thing. We had 30 original tunes.
I sort of thought that at some point I’d get together with a band that would be focused on doing Grateful Dead setlists. When it finally came around, we had a weekly house gig. I had Wing Nut. Everyone else had their various weekend bands. Pretty much everyone else was working full-time as a musician. Mike didn’t really need to work. He had an inheritance from a family member dying.
Dark Star started in 1997 and became really popular incredibly quickly. How did you rise above the other Dead tribute bands and become the premier one?
We were pretty good [laughs]. We were all Deadheads, too. We all had some tape collections and had favorite eras and favorite versions of songs. It was never a note-for-note thing we were going for. We picked shows more on the notion of how many new songs we would have to learn for next week’s show, and we did more of an interpolation idea. I mean, if there was something new about that year, or someone new in the band, or a different way they played that song, then we’d just listen to several different versions and interpolate our own version in a similar style.
Right. So if you’re playing “Friend of the Devil” in a 1971 show it’s going to sound very different than “Friend of a Devil” from a 1985 show.
Yeah. That’s a very clear difference. From 1971 to 1974, “Friend of the Devil” was played pretty much the way you hear it on the album, even though they’re playing electric instead of acoustic. And then around 1976, they completely re-worked it as a mid-tempo reggae. I guess it was inspired by a Kenny Loggins version that I’ve never actually heard, but someone told me he recorded “Friend of the Devil” in kind of a reggae style, and that influenced the approach thereon. From 1976 on, they played it differently.
That’s an easy example, and there’s other songs that have even more variations. There are three or four distinctly different approaches to the “Slipknot” section of “Help on the Way.”
These differences really matter to fans, and yet most tribute bands weren’t being nearly this precise.
Presumably. We were just really into it. But at the beginning, like I said, we were still playing with other bands on the weekends. We’d have a Tuesday night show and somewhere over the next couple of days, we’d pick a show to do next week. Everyone would do their homework, and we’d show up the next Monday to go through it. We’d play it on Tuesday and then be like, “See you next week.”
I had known a lot of the local Dead tribute bands, or bands that were Deadheads, but didn’t exclusively play Grateful Dead. And then there were bands that exclusively played Grateful Dead, but they weren’t necessarily Deadheads. What I tried to do was put together a band of actual lifelong musicians, most of whom got into their instrument deeply before they discovered the Grateful Dead, then all authentically got into the Grateful Dead, and were dissatisfied with their previous experiences of trying to play the songs live. We all encouraged each other to do better as professional musicians on roughly the same level.
The timing was pretty perfect. The Dead no longer existed. The guys were touring solo. Some of the fans moved onto Phish, but there was still a huge market that wanted to hear Dead music played live that wasn’t being served.
I don’t like the zero-sum game approach. I don’t like the term “market.” I encourage people to say “scene” instead. I also think bands create their own audiences. If you do it well, you will create fans. There isn’t a finite number of fans. And in the Grateful Dead world, there’s millions of Deadheads all over the world. There are some, now that Jerry is gone, that never want to hear anybody play those songs live ever again. And there’s some that will start dancing as soon as somebody comes out and starts to play “Sugaree” on a tissue-paper comb. Then there’s everything in between.
Around the time of your band’s one-year anniversary, two members of Phish came out and played with you. It was clearly building up very quickly.
I started seeing Phish in 1991. Right before that I was like, “Maybe I’ll try and play music with a quartet and mix in some progressive influence to the psychedelic dance formula.” And then I hear Phish! [Laughs.] I was like, “God dammit, now what?”
I probably saw about 50 Phish shows from 1991 to 1996. I actually got to meet them. My first wife was really, really into them. We went to see our first show together. She didn’t have a band and obligations, so she would go see more shows than me. She’d see them in Midwestern college towns where you could just hang out with them at a bar beforehand. It was actually [Jon] Fishman that sat in with us.
What was your favorite era of the Dead to recreate? When do you think they were at their best live?
I think it was 1988 to 1990. I’ve heard Bobby agree with me. I think 1973/1974 and 1977/1978 are comparable in different ways. You know, if Jerry hadn’t died and had pulled his health together, I think an album from that era would have been another launch for them. I don’t think it would been another “Touch of Grey” kind of wave, but I think it could have been something nostalgia-tinged. I’m thinking of songs [from that time] like “Lazy River Road,” “Liberty,” and “Days Between.”
When is the first time that you met a member of the Grateful Dead?
I know it’s kind of going out to the periphery, but the first member of the Grateful Dead I met and got to play with was [late Sixties keyboardist] Tom Constanten. And then it was Donna Jean [Godchaux]. Those were both through Dark Star Orchestra. At some point around 2003, I stated playing with [Jerry Garcia Band organist] Melvin Seals. At that point, one of his booking agents was also helping Donna re-launch the Heart of Gold band. He said, “Hey, here’s her number. While you’re down in Alabama playing, give her a call.” I was like, “OK.” [Laughs.] I dialed the number and was like, “Hey, is this Donna Jean Godchaux?”
And then her and her husband David [MacKay] and [son] Zion came down to check us out. That launched a whole bunch of stuff. She sang with us, and her band opened for us for whole stretches of tour. I sat in a bunch with Zion’s project BoomBox.
Then Bob Weir played with you guys at the Fillmore in 2007. Was that the first time a core member of the band played with you guys?
I think that is. I feel like he came and said “Hi” to us at some other show. Then we set up a benefit show and he came out and did two or three songs with us. Then we did another show with him, but it’s all kind of blurring together. There were some 250 shows with Furthur since then.
Playing with him in Dark Star must have been a real thrill.
Absolutely. It felt like we were activating memories that he had set aside for a while, primal memory stuff. He had been doing it differently for a while, but when he played with us, he just fell right into it.
It was generous of him to embrace you guys. Some artists don’t like their own tribute bands. They see them as competition.
It’s not like we were doing the standard tribute band approach. It wasn’t like we tried to dress like them. I stayed away from having similar guitars. I did put pick-ups that Jerry used in the speakers, but it wasn’t like I went out of my way to put on any weight or anything. I didn’t have a fake beard or anything silly like that. But some things happen naturally, like using body language cues to make changes happen in songs.
Your guitar style and singing style is similar to Jerry’s in many ways.
Yeah. Before I even saw the Grateful Dead for the first time, I had some basic skills in emulating guitar tones. Most of that is actually not equipment. It’s right-hand picking technique and knowing what pickup to use. But I saw enough of Garcia that his playing style was pretty deep in me. It’s pretty easy to let it out, and let it be the dominant muse for the whole night.
How did Furthur first come together?
I can’t really speak to what was going on in Bob and Phil’s world at that point. Basically, they had decided they wanted to start a new thing together in the spring of 2009. I got an e-mail that I actually rescued out of my spam folder from Bob’s manager. I didn’t know it was Bob’s manager. His phone number had so many zeros in it that I was sure I was being pranked [laughs].
I wrote to [keyboardist] Rob Barraco and went, “Who is Matt Busch?” He goes, “Bob’s manager. Why are you asking?” I went, “Oops. Cat’s out of the bag, I guess.” This was in June of 2009. I replied to the e-mail and said, “Yes.” Next thing I know, I’m being contacted by [production manager] Robbie Taylor to make arrangements for equipment to be there, and making arrangements with Phil’s manager to get flights.
It was actually Jerry’s birthday when we did the first jam. It was originally supposed to be John Molo on drums. I guess he backed out. Then there was this question of, “Who is going to be the drummer?” Then I heard it was going to be Joe Russo. I had a Benevento/Russo Duo record in my CD collection already, but I didn’t know him.
It was Aug. 1 at SIR Studios. We had a jam with Bob and Phil, and Jay [Lane] and Joe on drums, and Jeff Chimenti on keys. We recorded it and they were like, “Don’t share it.” But it was all there. We did a great “Playing in the Band.” It was an interesting jam.
I was there for about four days of audition/rehearsal. After the second night, they puled the four Js aside into a room: me, Jeff, Joe, and Jay. They went, “I think we have a band. If you guys can clear your 2010 schedules, go ahead and do so.” We all said “yes” on the spot.
How shocked were you that they asked you to join their group after all these years of playing their music?
It was really cool. I felt like our approach in Dark Star Orchestra was pretty academic and we went really deep. And here was a chance to work with two of the creators of the sound. I was hopeful we could bring enough of my knowledge of the backstory to effectively carve out something that’s fresh. We were working on Phil’s new original song “Welcome to the Dance” by the third day of rehearsal. At that point, it was rehearsal instead of audition.
We then had to come up with a band name. I went back to the hotel room and called my mom. I said, “Hey, we got the gig! We need to come up with a band name.” She goes, “Furthur.” She wasn’t a Deadhead, but she’s an artist and she was intrigued by the photos of the Furthur bus kind of deteriorating in the bogs outside of Springfield, Oregon.
I was like, “I don’t know how tight the Kesey camp and the Dead camp is right now.” I had heard a few things about some hard feelings here and there. I kind of pooh-poohed it. But after the third day of rehearsal, they invited us to a barbecue in Phil Lesh’s backyard. It’s Phil’s tradition whenever he forms a new ensemble. And the subject of “what are we going to call this?” comes up. We were sitting around the table. It was quiet for a minute. And then Bobby says, “Furthur.” [Laughs.] Nobody argued. I was like, “Alright, it’s Furthur!”
I read the Joel Selvin book about the Dead after Jerry. He said that one of the goals of creating Furthur was to undermine Dark Star by taking you out of it.
I’m just going to go on record and say that guy didn’t even approach me. I was right there for Furthur. I was in the room where it happened. Frankly, that guy seems like he had an axe to grind with Phil Lesh when he wrote that book.
He also didn’t seem very fond of Jill Lesh.
You know what? I think Jill did a fine job with Furthur. I have no complains about my experience with her at all. I’m just going to pin that on the residual misogyny of rock & roll.
Did it feel at all bittersweet when Furthur started, since you knew you had to leave Dark Star Orchestra?
Yeah. But at that point, after all those years with Dark Star, I felt I pretty much learned everything. There was only about 10 [Dead] songs we hadn’t played. There was this bittersweet thought of, “What happens when I get to the end of the list?” [Laughs.] It was kind of cool since we ended up playing some of those songs I hadn’t played yet in Dark Star in Furthur.
I was at a point where I felt real pressure. I was the original Jerry guy in Dark Star. I was the only guy that hadn’t had a sub. I was the only guy that if I got sick that day, nobody worked. If a drummer gets sick, we can do a one-drummer show. If Lisa [Mackey] gets sick, we just do an Eighties show. If Kevin [Rosen] gets sick, we just find a show that doesn’t have any Phil vocals. But I get sick, the show is canceled. Even if Rob [Eaton, the guitarist in the Bob Weir spot] gets sick, we can do a Jerry Garcia Band show.
Was it hard telling the Dark Star guys that you were leaving?
Yeah. It had some complications — just interpersonal stuff that didn’t play out necessarily like I expected it to. But I don’t really need to get into detail on that. It’s all water under the bridge now. We’re all getting along. I don’t see the point in rehashing the details of that.
Tell me about the first few Furthur shows. It must have felt weird to look around the stage and see the real Phil and real Bob after all those years of playing with people that were playing their roles.
It was pretty cool. It was also cool to see them both as passionate, active artists with their crafts. They hadn’t lost the childlike wonder of a new tone or a new piece of gear. Bobby would get excited about a new app that allowed you to slow music down. He was like, “I’m going to go into my Coltrane recordings and transcribe some Coltrane solos with this.” He’d do stuff like that just for his personal edification. He’d sit cross-legged in front of his own guitar rack and poke around the menus of effects processors.
How were the setlist made in Furthur? Did Bob pick one night and Phil picked the next?
I think both Bobby and Phil had done all the song-picking for Ratdog and Phil Lesh and Friends. I think they were ready to just give final approval. They had their respective first-in-commands write alternating setlists. They were open to suggestions from all of us. I introduced the George Harrison song “Any Road.” I introduced “Fool in the Rain” by Led Zeppelin.
You even did “Train in Vain” by the Clash.
That was all Bobby. He had this amazing story about Mick Jones. They met and discovered they had a mutual love of Howlin’ Wolf. ‘Train in Vain” kind of builds on a Howlin’ Wolf groove.
My impression was that Bob likes a slow tempo for the songs, and Phil likes it a bit faster. Is that right?
Well, maybe it’s an oversimplification. I think the Grateful Dead in general, whenever they wanted to re-work something, one of the first things they did was slow it way down. They’d try and make the energy work at a slower tempo, and not just lean on speeding it up as a way to make it more exciting.
Also, Bob was often the one singing it. He successfully made the point, at least to me, that there were a number of songs where you’d think in the first 20 seconds, “Oh my God, this is so slow.” And then it would just come together. It would find its energy, and it wouldn’t feel slow anymore. I tried to be open-minded about it. And if I was singing a song, they generally let me pick the tempo for it.
As far as the overall setlist, my biggest takeaway lesson after doing 13 years of Grateful Dead setlists is that every one of those shows had at least one song in it that the only way you’d know that song was if you knew tapers and were getting tapes from earlier in the same tour.
They were playing their new songs that weren’t on records yet. They were playing covers from obscure people. They were always pushing. It wasn’t like they were like, “Hey, we have a new record and we’re going to play every new song and a few hits around it.” But every night would have at least one song from the next record.
In the years before you, they used Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, and Steve Kimock in essentially the slot you occupied. How was your approach different than those guys?
Well, we have all pretty different backgrounds. I’m a fan of Steve Kimock, for sure. I enjoy Warren Haynes a lot, and Jimmy Herring a lot. I saw Jimmy Herring several times with the [jazz fusion band] Aquarium Rescue Unit.
I feel the most affinity to Kimock as far as approach. He goes deep and takes his time finding it. My experience isn’t quite as deep, but I think have quicker reaction times to musical events going on. That’s an overgeneralization.
Warren Haynes has the experience of being in the Allman Brothers. A lot of ways, what happened to him in the Allman Brothers is similar to what happened to me with Furthur. It was music that he loves, and he was asked to join a certain point after the founding guitar player [Duane Allman] passed. He didn’t join right away. It took a while. But at a certain point, he came in and it became the Allman Brothers again.
He has a different approach to tone. There are different lineages of electric guitar tone. In the rock/blues world, you’ve got your Muddy Waters approach and then your Buddy Guy/Freddie King approach. It has to deal with with whether are you building the ensemble sound around the guitar sound, or if you’re baking the guitar sound into the ensemble sound.
You had some great guests come out and play with Furthur. What do you remember about the night that Clarence Clemons came out in 2011? That was one of his last live performances.
He came out with [Moe guitarist] Al Schnier. It was really awesome. We played “Turn On Your Love Light” and he tore it up. I saw Clarence play with the Jerry Garcia Band my first two Jerry Garcia Band shows in the fall of 1989. That was a treat and a real honor, for sure.
Elvis Costello came out another night.
That was kind of a weird night. That was around the time that Bear [Owsley Stanley] passed away. He was a little superstar-ish with his private space. I didn’t get to really talk to him or anything.
How about Trey Anastasio at Lockn’?
That’s something I looked forward to for a long time. I’d played with Mike [Gordon] and Jon [Fishman] a bunch, but I’d never played with Trey. That was really cool. We’d crossed paths before. My ex-wife and one of her girlfriends once went to see some Phish shows in Florida. After the show, they wound up near the tour bus on the highway. They pulled over at the same truck stop. Trey hopped off the bus and into their car and went, “Hey, can I drive?” [Laughs.] He drove their car for an hour and a half to their next stop.
It was a lot of fun to play with Trey. It was an honor. It was a treat. But I think that Branford Marsalis is the sit-in guest that I felt most honored by.
Bob collapsed onstage right at your feet at the Capitol Theater in 2013. That must have been pretty terrifying.
That was a crazy night. There’s part of me that wishes I had more experience with people partying hard in my past, but mostly I’ve been blessed by playing with fairly sober people. That isn’t to say that Bobby isn’t a sober person, but he definitely wasn’t then [laughs].
You must have been worried about him.
Yeah. What are you going to do, though? My first reaction was that somebody had jumped onstage. I saw it out of the corner of my eye and I kind of backed up. Then I was like, “Oh, it’s Bobby. Shit.”
Then I was like, “By the time I take my guitar off to help him up, somebody is going to be here. Then I will have taken my guitar off. What do I do? If I try and pick him up with my guitar on, I might poke his eye out with a guitar string.” It seemed like forever, but it really was just a couple of seconds before stage crew were there helping him up.
It was just one of those things where Bobby and Phil were hitting their boundaries with each other. It’s this older/younger brother energy. And there were things like the fact that Phil can’t sleep in a moving vehicle, and Bobby can’t sleep in Manhattan [laughs]. It eventually came to a head since Phil wanted to do more residencies, which is what he’s doing now. And Bobby likes to tour.
Did you ever feel stuck in the middle of the two of them?
A little. But not as bad as [Joe] Russo. [Laughs.] He was put in the middle of the two of them as far as having to figure out who to accommodate going faster or slower.
You have two bosses of equal stature, and you can’t make them both happy at once.
The people around Phil and Bobby told me that I was brought in musically to make them both happy at the same time. I kind of looked at them as co-bosses. Phil was my guru of staying in the moment. Bobby was my guru of dodging impending doom. You have to stay in the now and not get too far ahead, but you have to sense train wrecks and artfully dodge them.
When Bob collapsed, it was all over the Internet for days. It must have been weird to be in the middle of all that.
Yeah. It was a little uncomfortable for a while.
They announced a few months later that the band was ending. How did that happen?
We knew ahead. Like I said, the ability to play 60, 70 shows a year around the country was running its course. They were getting to the point where Bob and Phil wanted different approaches moving forward. In theory, it’s an indefinite hiatus. Every once a while, Bobby says it’s a project he wouldn’t mind revisiting. He seems pretty happy with the Wolf Brothers thing, which I’m actually seeing tonight at the Kennedy Center.
The last Furthur show was in Mexico in 2014. Do you have fond memories of that night?
We had a good time down there. The resort itself was a logistics fiasco, but we managed to have fun anyway.
How did you feel about Fare Thee Well, when they announced those stadium shows with Trey?
I thought it made sense. It was going to be a big deal with a lot of advanced hype. I think Trey is arguably the inheritor of Garcia’s bandleader approach as far as being a guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, and a band leader. That’s kind of the Buddy Holly formula that, I think, both the Grateful Dead and the Beatles idolized. We were trying to demonstrate how you could do an art project with multiple Buddy Hollys, or Buddy Holly proteges.
Trey is definitely the guy from my generation that carried that torch the furthest, and he had the most experience dealing with stadium-sized crowds. He had the team to help him deal with whatever social media and publicity pressure came up. I was glad he had to wrangle all that instead of me, frankly.
Did you see any of those shows?
I saw all five. I was a guest of the band. I had my souvenir laminates.
Was it weird to be watching from the audience and not onstage?
I don’t know. I just remember being in this fishbowl. I had an incident that affected my personal life in a way I hadn’t anticipated since there were live cameras in Chicago. I didn’t realize I was on camera. I don’t think I did anything too terribly embarrassing, but it caused some tension with the ex-wife [laughs].
Are you saying that…
I don’t want to necessarily go too in-depth on this. It was just an example of not realizing that the camera was live. I thought I was being a champion for my current love, and thinking it would show up on a tape down the line. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh my God, this is going live to a bunch of my friends in a bar.” Whatever. [Laughs.]
How did you feel with they started Dead and Co. with John Mayer.
Ummm… Bobby, Mickey [Hart], and Bill [Kreutzmann] get to play together. I think Mayer is an odd choice [laughs]. But it seems to be having its own “Touch of Grey” effect as far as getting the music out to a new audience. That’s a good thing.
You don’t think John was the best choice?
I’m just looking at the repertoire list. I don’t know. [Laughs.] They’re seven years in and still only playing a certain number of songs. It’s all good. Whatever. They’re doing what they can. I imagine Mayer needs to figure out a way to preserve his identity, but I would have thought maybe we’d see more Grateful Dead songs to turn his core audience onto at his shows, and it hasn’t really happened.
They announced that the tour next year will be the last.
I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes there. I don’t have much room to comment on it. I still have a project that I’m dying to get back together. It’s with Jeff Chimenti and Jay Lane. We launched a project shortly after Furthur ended called the Golden Gate Wingmen, with Reed Mathis on bass. It runs a close second to Furthur for being my favorite band I’ve ever played with.
After Furthur went on hiatus, did you think at all about going back to Dark Star Orchestra?
No. I just feel like I want to do shows where there are songs people don’t know. And one of the things Golden Gate Wingmen is capable of doing is going onstage without a setlist at all and just winging it. We know what we’re going to start and end with. Everything in between we’re just going to call on the fly. Everyone is willing to scan a chart before we go out and try something. It’s very adventurous. We have an expansive repertoire, including a bunch of original stuff.
You guested with Dark Star earlier this year. How did it feel to be back with them for that one night?
It was fun to bury the hatchet from the old days. It’s always nice to be able to hang out with people and have it not feel weird [laughs].
But there’s no scenario you’d return to them on a permanent basis?
I don’t think so. They’re an operation now. If I say anything like, “I might want to start a Phase Two operation with them,” their management will be like, “Keep John away from them.”
You know how these things go. There’s only like 1,500 musicians working full-time in the whole country. I’m pretty sure there are more plumbers working full time here in D.C. than that. And there’s no solid instruction manual for how to do it right. Everyone is coming up with their own way. We just have to make room for things to play out in their own way sometimes.
You are touring with Melvin Seals right now. That must be fun since you’re exploring the repertoire of the Jerry Garcia Band, which is pretty different than the Grateful Dead’s repertoire.
Yeah. I’ve also gotten a chance to do that pretty deeply both with Dark Star Orchestra, and with Melvin in the past. We’ve done various events. We had a band together called the Mix that got signed to a recording contact. We released an album in 2004. I had some of my originals, and some of Melvin’s originals. The founding bass player of Dark Star Orchestra, [Kevin Rosen,] was also in the Mix. He had a couple of originals on there. Greg Anton was the drummer. He was the co-writer with Robert Hunter on all the Zero songs that Robert penned lyrics for. We did a couple of those songs.
You said you were seeing Bob Weir tonight. Are you still in touch with him?
Yeah. He’s come down and sat in with my band a few different times post-Covid. When we’re playing at Terrapin Crossroads or Sweetwater, he’s been down to come in and play several songs.
Now that Dead and Co. are ending, do you see a scenario where there could be more Furthur — or at least more chances for you to play with Bob or Phil?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t be opposed. I don’t know that that’s in the works or not. But I am trying to figure out some sort of project that would be a tribute to Furthur where we could reinhabit the original songs.
How would that work?
It would be like any live music project. We’d also do “Colors of the Rain” and “Seven Hills of Gold” and even some Ratdog and Phil songs that we brought in. I loved playing “Money for Gasoline.” That’s a Ratdog song, but we played it a bunch in Furthur.
Who would be in the band with you?
I don’t know [laughs].
The fans would love it.
I could see something there, since the Furthur originals could fill the niche of unfamiliar material.
Do you think you’ll be playing Dead music for the rest of your life in some capacity?
In some form, definitely. I love it. It’s still full of heart for me, and full of doorways to new sounds.
And you have zero regrets about leaving Dark Star for Furthur?
No. It was a project I started, but I was aware of Founder’s Syndrome. It was probably best that I get away from it. I already had been trying to find people that could sub for me. I had invited Jeff Mattson to sit in. I wanted to cultivate the notion that people could sub for me.
In the next decade or so, Phil, Bob, Mickey, and Bill are going to stop touring. People are going to still really want to hear these songs live, though. You’ll be one of the people they turn to for that.
I try not to think too much about those kind of things. I try and focus on my own musical growth, and cultivating musical relationships with other musicians. I’ll let the chips fall where they do.