John Kadlecik: On the Road (Review)

 John Kadlecik: On the Road (Album Review)
 By Jarrett Bellini | @JarrettBellini 
 December 14, 2018

John Kadlecik can be a bit polarizing.

To some, he over-embodies the tone and voice of Jerry Garcia. To others, his sound is a welcome portal to the past. But there should be no debate about the quality of his new album, "On the Road."

While unabashedly nodding (twice) to the silver-lined cloud that follows him – his forever connection to the music of the Grateful Dead – here, Kadlecik largely stands alone. With his own words. And with his own voice.

It's wonderful.

Somewhat surprisingly, this is Kadlecik’s first studio release as a solo artist. Which might suggest a renewed focus for his career. It’s hard to tell, even when you ask. Which I did.

We traded messages over email and I put it out there point blank: What do you want?

His response started with a reference to Babylon 5, and wove into sort of a non-answer answer.

"I guess I'd like to keep playing live anywhere and everywhere (maybe in orbit someday) with musicians that can improvise the way I like to jam,” Kadlecik said. “I'd like to write a song or two that can stand next to ‘All You Need Is Love,’ ‘Visions of Johanna,’ or ‘Terrapin Station,’ and I hope to live long enough to see humanity survive the age of bullshit."

None of us may live long enough to witness the latter - clearly, the bullshit is here to stay - but at least now we have a reference point with “On the Road” to gauge where Kadlecik stands amidst his goals as a songwriter. And, to that end, we should start with the album’s fifth track “Golden Wings” because it’s the only song fully credited to him, though with some lyrical assistance from Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet.

And I’ll just say it. This song is beautiful.

It’s the best track on the album. Hell, he may have struck some level of songwriting gold with his first official swing of the ax.

It’s a song about questioning your human value and, ultimately, trusting in the merits you’ve already proven both to yourself and to the world. As the Rumi-inspired chorus says, “Oh, soul, you worry too much. You have seen your own strength. You have seen your own beauty. You have seen your golden wings. Of anything less, why do you (care)?”

For Kadlecik, I imagine this song is especially poignant. Nearly ten years removed from Dark Star Orchestra and four years beyond the disbanding of Furthur, Kadlecik stands firmly at a crossroad. The Grateful Dead tribute band he created back in 1997 continues on without him. And the Grateful Dead splinter band he fronted for eight years with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh is only but a bittersweet memory.

For me, the end of Furthur also signaled the end of a dream. In my eyes, Furthur should've been the future of the Grateful Dead. It had (at least as much as possible without Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann) the right lineup. The right soul. And the right name.


It’s a little cheesy, but I always hoped it would actually go ... there. That it would become the ongoing forever-legacy of the Grateful Dead as a living, breathing animal that just kept evolving and growing, renewed and refreshed over the years. That it could be, for future generations, a proper continuation of what started in 1965.

I envisioned at some point, when it was time, that Phil Lesh would walk away. That Bob Weir would walk away. And that they could hand-pick their replacements. And, someday, that even Kadlecik would walk away. That Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti would walk away. And they, too, would have a say on the next generation - all for the purpose of keeping the songs of the Grateful Dead alive in some sort of semi-official capacity.

And this would repeat - furthur - into infinity. Or at least until the Earth implodes and swallows us all whole. Which, seeing as how things are going on our planet, might be sometime next week.

I’m sure many fans might (justifiably) scoff at my one-time vision for Furthur. And, certainly, Kadlecik didn't look that far ahead either. He told me, "It was always a thing that I knew would last until it didn't, so I treasured every moment.”

He added that the part of the experience he was most fond of was “writing, arranging, and performing new songs with Bob and Phil.”

This is the continuation of the Grateful Dead I dreamed of with Furthur - new music.

And Kadlecik, though generally dismissive of overthinking that future, suggests he at least had a similar ambition. He admits, “I did hope we would record a studio album of those songs eventually.”

Which brings us back to “On the Road” where Kadlecik gives studio life to two previously-unrecorded songs by the Grateful Dead - “Lazy River Road” and “So Many Roads.”

Both are Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter collaborations, and it was a bold (and arguably daring) move to hit the record button on these particular songs. Especially “So Many Roads” which offered, perhaps, one of the most sad, soulful, and beautiful moments from Jerry Garcia during the Grateful Dead’s final show in Chicago on July 9, 1995.

But Kadlecik treats both tunes with the dignity they deserve, noting that they are two of his favorites from the Grateful Dead.

Of the remaining six tracks on “On the Road” three revisit old songs from Hairball Willie, Kadlecik’s former Chicago-based band which he left to eventually form Dark Star Orchestra.

From these, “The Hanging of John Collins” is the only one ever actually recorded by Hairball Willie on their lone 1993 album “Just Defying Gravity.” Penned by vocalist Eric Olson and guitarist Robert Eszak, it’s a simple story-song that, melodically, has sort of a Warren Zevon vibe to it.

"Seen Love” is another resurfaced Hairball Willie song, and it’s one of this album’s highlights. Written by Eric Olson and Jerry Baker, the music is arranged by Kadlecik and there’s just something very unique about the way he put it together.

I can’t quite place my finger on why. But it’s here - along with the aforementioned “Golden Wings” - where we might start to define Kadlecik’s signature sound. These two songs offer what I think is the clearest glimpse of what that might be.

The third Hairball Willie song on the album, “It’s Alright,” was, again, written by Eric Olson. But, this time, he shares credit with Kadlecik. It’s a fun, bouncing little number, clearly influenced by Jerry Garcia Band, both in mood and tone.

Which is important because I think, generally speaking, Jerry Garcia Band (more so than the Grateful Dead) has had a significant overall impact on Kadlecik’s music.

You can hear additional evidence of this influence, albeit to a lesser extent, in another track called “Hard Highway.” Though once again co-written with Olson, this collaboration is relatively new and doesn’t go back to the days of Hairball Willie.

“On the Road” is bookended by two long-form instrumental songs that began as live improvisations in the studio. The first of these, kicking off the album, is “How Am I Not Myself.” It’s uplifting, fast, and fun, and highlighted by aggressive organ solos.

The final track, “Here We Are,” starts as a simple jazz number that, midway through, evolves into a rocker.

These two instrumentals are great musical explorations and exist as a showcase for Kadlecik’s talent. But I would trade them both for two more straight-forward songs. Because that’s what excites me about this album. I already know Kadlecik can play. I know he can jam. I know he can improvise.

So, it would’ve been great to dig even deeper into his songwriting.

But like his years spent with Furthur, “On the Road” was not something Kadlecik over-imagined. Or, in this case, even conceptualized. In fact, the whole thing was rather unfocused, starting only as a two-day studio party with Jay Lane on drums, Benjie Porecki on keyboards, and Robin Sylvester on bass.

When he realized they actually had enough material, Kadlecik said he went for the “Hail Mary” pass of turning it all into a record, but with the luxury of spontaneity, and without the pressure of “getting it right.” 

He also had some additional studio hours booked that he later used for mixing and overdubs with vocalists Jessica Lake and Mary Lankford.

It was happening. It was real. He was making a John Kadlecik album.

“This seemed like a good time to get something into the current streaming world,” he said. “I am pretty proud of what we accomplished in a total of eight days of studio time and less than $10k.”

And there’s likely more to come.

Kadlecik notes that there are some new collaborations already in the works with Eric Olson, and a several old Hairball Willie songs he’d still like to dust off and re-arrange.

More importantly, though, Kadlecik is motivated to add words to paper, doubling down on his mission to grow as a lyricist.

And he insists on aiming high.

I hope to write a few great, timeless songs before I draw my last breath.”


Unknown said...

I agree with you regarding Further. D&C is not even close to what Further had done.

Anonymous said...

i love listing to the Jerry Garcia Band and John K is wonderful at recreating his music. i have seem him 30 times live and are never disappointed leaving me wanting more. John please keep Jerry alive all you bands are wonderful.
Jeff K-town -

Unknown said...

Lesh and Weir can go scratch. They had the perfect musician to explore with...they end it, have a 50 year reunion and use Trey?!?!? All bout the $$$$$$$.....sadp

Adam Schule said...

How sad that this star wars commander desktop has turned into a classic rather than what it used to be. I really miss he old days.