The Art Of The Sit-In | John Kadlecik
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Mike Dillon, Eric Krasno, Tom Hamilton and others.
John Kadlecik is one of the great interpreters of Grateful Dead music. That’s something to celebrate, but it’s also something that’s pigeonholed him and sometimes overshadows what’s been a long and much more varied career than his best-known associations – Dark Star Orchestra and Furthur – might suggest.
You’ll hear awesomely potent stuff from Kadlecik in either of those contexts, as well as with Phil Lesh & Friends, with which he’s done several runs already in 2014 and will likely do more.
But one of the best places to experience Kadlecik is with his John K Band: relaxed, unhurried and both wholly embracing of Kadlecik’s favorite Dead and JGB songs and free of the pressures of playing in marquee Dead-related bands.
The John K Band visits New York’s Highline Ballroom this Friday and will pick up for another run of headlining gigs in May. Having just wrapped two Phil Lesh & Friends runs at the Capitol Theater, Kadlecik is also gearing up for more shows with the Everyone Orchestra, another of his not-infrequent pursuits.
We caught up with John late last week to cover the bases, and were especially excited to hear about his prolific output of new songs.
JAMBASE: How is this run of Phil Lesh & Friends shows going?
JOHN KADLECIK: It’s going pretty well. What’s really cool is how we’re blowing up the Marco and Joe connection. Standing in between those two guys and what they have going on is really cool.
JAMBASE: And having Bill Evans there must be an interesting dynamic given how he approaches sit-ins.
JK: Bill’s amazing. He really enjoys playing quite a bit and he’s not afraid to get in there and mess with the jams. He doesn’t really wait his turn, which is great. He’s not afraid to get dirty with us.
JAMBASE: With Furthur it was a steady band but with all these different folks with Phil & Friends, a lot of times you’re the one with the deep familiarity with this music playing alongside folks who aren’t as familiar. How do you adapt to playing with all these different combinations of people?
JK: Well, it’s Phil’s band, and the Phil & Friends thing, at least in my perception, is especially focused on the jams between songs or when the jams in the middle of the songs go so far out they’re unrecognizable from the song they came from. Phil, I mean, he’s got the express route to getting things at a near-psychic level. I just try to go and support that as much as possible. I’ll bring pieces in here and there but the point is what can happen with different people taking on this music.
Me, from my previous role with DSO and certainly up to now I get pigeonholed, but even before DSO, I spent 10 years touring the Midwest with bands that did original music – I never niched myself just into Garcia stuff. Even DSO, it began as a Tuesday night side project – a bunch of friends and full-time musicians saying ‘let’s do a Grateful Dead tribute band.’ It was a once a week thing and then it obviously got bigger.
JAMBASE: So you do feel pigeonholed once in a while?
JK: Well, yeah, and more than once in a while. My primary challenge…well, I wonder sometimes if people know anything that happened before Facebook. I’m looking at a 10-year anniversary, for example, of music I did with Melvin Seals and that had Robert Hunter lyrics, and I have this work, and people are still like, ‘When is he going to do original music’?
JAMBASE: But with DSO and then Furthur you can understand why some fans would look at you this way. Is that a fair statement?
JK: No, but I think it is what it is.
JAMBASE: How do you approach each of these changing Phil lineups? Do you know going in, for example, that some will require more heavy lifting from you than others?
JK: I welcome challenges anyway. A lot of these shows, and really the whole repertoire, I approach the way a bluegrass musician might approach experimenting with a bluegrass repertoire – understanding the instrumentation but looking at how to play a little of everything, especially if the desire is to have it maybe not sound like bluegrass, but, I don’t know, maybe you want to try “Uncle Pen” reggae-style or change it up somehow.
I think there are the songs and then there is a style being created. I can’t speak for how Phil wants to do things, by my impression is that success for Phil & Friends really means getting to that place where you’re lost in the music and opening up the songs. That possibility is always there.
JAMBASE: Boyd Tinsley was a recent Friend who hadn’t been in a Phil lineup before. How was that experience with him in the band?
JK: You know, it was interesting – it was fun. I got to hang with him a little bit and he was definitely a cool cat. I think the music opened up in ways for him to get in there. There are hot spots in the music that I’ve identified when playing it, and for me in that situation it’s to try and not hog all those hot spots and maybe steer him or someone into a place they could really take it and run with it. It’s not something I’d do in an overt way with Phil & Friends but in little, general nudges.
JAMBASE: Are there any players you’d like to see brought into a future Phil lineup? Do you have any input into the personnel?
JK: No, it’s Phil’s baby. I’m happy to just be along. I throw stuff out there but it’s not like it’s something I push as an agenda.
JAMBASE: Talk about the John K Band. You’re spending more time with it this year and I think I’ve been seeing new songs creep into the setlist. What’s the outlook for the John K Band right now?
JK: About two and a half years ago I had a two-day writing session with Bob Weir at TRI Studios. We worked on Robert Hunter songs – he had this folder of lyrics and Bob had claimed one for himself, I think, and then was like, ‘let’s pick one for you to sing.’ We went through and what was also in there were several lyrics by a different lyricist. How those ended up in Bob’s folder is a mystery, but one of those songs, “Desert Trance,” Bob and I worked on together. He wrote the chorus and I wrote the verse and did a bunch of arranging and that turned into something we play with the John K Band.
I started the John K Band in part to just have some local friends to play with in the D.C. area. We’ve always kind of downplayed the publicity on it because we wanted to keep it at a certain level where it would stay fun and low pressure. But another instrumental I had been writing at the time, “Your Mileage May Vary,” that’s also come in to the John K Band setlist.
I think both songs for me are part of the cracking open of a near 15-year writer’s block. I got to meet this mystery lyricist – his name is Indi Riverflow. I contacted him after seeing his lyrics and he submitted this deluge of lyrics for me to tackle. In trying to get my priorities together, I decided to sync up with an astrological event this past February, which was Mercury in retrograde. So I set out in February to work on a song a day, and life didn’t quite allow me the luxury of that, although I had enough days where I worked on two or three songs so it balanced out.
Now I have seven or eight new songs pretty much written and another half-dozen kind of started, and then there’s teaching them to the band, which is a bit slower as you do arranging and trying it out and listening to it and then saying, eh, no. But we’ve got a total of five new songs we’re waiting to break out.
One of them I should mention is about a psychedelics experiment that happened at Harvard under Walter Pahnke. I know an independent filmmaker who is doing a documentary on him and wants to license soundtrack music, so we wrote this one for that. And we’ve been booked on Good Friday [in New York], so that seems like the day to break that song out.
JAMBASE: And these songs are all intended as John K Band songs?
JK: Let’s call them John Kadlecik songs. John K Band is my hometown party band. We’re not doing a long tour, maybe there’ll be an away team version of it at some point, but these are friends – it’s more about that vibe and just seeing what we can do together. I’m not looking at John K as the defining thing in it, the name has just been part of helping it get appropriate publicity.
JAMBASE: So Indi Riverflow wasn’t someone you knew – did Weir?
JK: Again it’s still a bit of a mystery to be how his lyrics wound up in Bob’s folder, but there may have been some persistent e-mailing, I don’t know. But we met and we’re definitely connected in a lot of literary and philosophical interests, things like psychedelics and the occult. He’s published two books of his works and works with some songwriters on the West Coast.
JAMBASE: So you’ll be continuing to write and work on these songs?
JK: At this point, yeah. I’m realizing that if I want to keep going with the writing I have to keep blocking out time. Mercury is in retrograde next in June, so I’ll be looking to get writing again in June. I plan to be prolific. I have a little bit more luxury in my schedule right now.
JAMBASE: For folks less-astrologically-inclined, why would Mercury in retrograde make you more productive?
JK: The conventional wisdom is that when Mercury is in retrograde, it takes three times as much work to get something done – it’s a time to plan on snafus happening. Mercury has all these magnetic properties that in many cases science still knows little about, and when it’s in retrograde, it appears to stop and back up in relation to the sun. It’s not too hard to imagine that that could disturb something in our consciousness, so the advice is to get stuff done – finish old projects. To me that means getting lyrics in final edits and setting the music. It works for me.
JAMBASE: John, what do you take away from your time with Furthur?
JK: That it’s just really exciting that Bob and Phil seem fired up about music. There are some musicians at that level who only want to play with a certain caliber of musician or musicians their same age, or fill in the blank criteria that they have. With them it was just really exciting to continue to engage, and that they support a multi-generational aspect of it, and that they’re both still growing and evolving as artists.
JAMBASE: Will you play again with Furthur or with Phil or Bob this year?
JK: I have no idea what the future holds in that regard. They’re doing what they’re doing and if I get to be part of it, that’s even more exciting.
JAMBASE: I want to ask about a few other projects. You mentioned that work you did with Melvin Seals, the Mix – any plans to revisit that?
JK: Maybe. The music that I contributed to, I still play. I do “American Spring” and “Givin Me the Business” with the John K Band. And we did do a Rex Benefit show at the Fillmore [in 2011]. It wasn’t Kevin Rosen on bass; Mike Sugar was there on bass and Greg Anton and others. Melvin’s been running pretty busy in recent years.
JAMBASE: I also remember Firewheel from a bunch of years ago.
JK: Firewheel might happen again – that was my duo project with my wife Katie and I and it was let’s see what we can do. I liked that, I got into some of the looping stuff and dug deeper into ways to play bass, piano and guitar all at once.
JAMBASE: And you mentioned DSO earlier. Are you in touch with your former bandmates at all?
JK: Not a whole lot, no. I think there’s been some cooling off, which is nice – it’s good not to have standing animosity. But I really haven’t had a lot of contact. There was an acrimonious separation and maybe here’s not the time to talk about those grievances again.
JAMBASE: Fair enough. John, we always appreciate the time. It seems like it’s a much more open schedule this year and that you’re feeling good.
JK: I can’t complain too much.
Here are five recent John Kadlecik performances well worth your listening hours.
John K Band at the State Theatre, Falls Church, VA, 12/6/2013
Lucky you if you’re in the D.C. area and John and his bandmates have a home-court show in the offing. This one from Falls Church’s beloved State Theatre is more than three hours of delectable, unhurried jamming – heavy on Dead and JGB tunes but with no shortage of fun surprises, including Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” to start the second set.
Furthur at Hard Rock Hotel, Rivera Maya, Mexico, 1/22/2014
Furthur entered hiatus on a high note, with its Paradise Waits festival receiving strong reviews from fans. To our ears, Night 3 was the gem show, with invigorating jam segments throughout.
RatDog at Lincoln Theater, Washington, DC, 2/18/2014
The rebooted RatDog has had some good nights in its new lineup, even with the energy sometimes sluggish. The band’s February 18 show in DC got a nice jolt from Kadlecik, who guested for the entire second set and helped drive adventurous jams in “Dark Star,” “The Other One” and “Wharf Rat” among others.
John K Band at Rams Head Live, Baltimore, MD, 3/29/2014
Another long, loose-limbed John K Band show demonstrates the fullness of experiencing this band. Come for the Dead and JGB, stay for the newer Kadlecik gems like “Hard Highway” and “Liquid Silver,” both of which debuted this night.
Phil Lesh & Friends at Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY, 4/10/2014
As of this writing, the second run of April Phil & Friends shows at the Cap was just wrapping up. But it started strong, with a jam-geek’s-delight lineup of Kadlecik, Marco Benevento, Joe Russo, Jackie Greene and Bill Evans getting nice and wild out there with Uncle Phil. The second show of the run had the goods, and one interesting dynamic to note is how much Kadlecik and Greene seem to enjoy playing together. Listen to this show compared to previous Kadlecik and Greene lineups from 2012 and you hear a rapport that wasn’t as evident two years ago.