Talk about living the dream.

John Kadlecik became a big Grateful Dead fan as a teen and fell in love with the band’s jazzy, improvisational style.

As someone who grew up playing classical violin before switching to guitar and discovering jazz and rock, Kadlecik found the Dead’s music to be a perfect blending of his musical loves.

While working as a young musician in Chicago bars, he started a Grateful Dead tribute band, Dark Star Orchestra, around 1997. It was meant to be a side project, something for the members to do when they weren’t performing with their own bands.

But Dark Star Orchestra proved so popular, the band was soon touring the world and playing major venues.

“We thought it was something we’d do for a couple months on Tuesday nights, but it just took off,” said Kadlecik, 42, in a phone interview.

It got to the point where the members of The Grateful Dead, including guitarist Bob Weir, played shows with Dark Star Orchestra. Then, in 2009, Kadlecik got an e-mail that would allow him to come full circle – to actually be in a band with Dead members Weir and bassist Phil Lesh.

“I had to rescue it out of my spam folder,” said Kadlecik. “It was basically asking me to audition for the band.”

Kadlecik perhaps had an advantage, having played Grateful Dead music for so many years. Whatever the reason, he made the cut and became a member of Furthur, which will play the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland on Friday. Attendees can expect to hear music from the Grateful Dead’s extensive archives as well as Furthur originals.

“It’s surreal. It’s quite a treat for me to get this kind of exposure to these guys and see how they are,” said Kadlecik. “It never gets like work for me, though the touring they do is fairly challenging, playing four or five nights in a row.”

Beginning in the mid-1960s, The Grateful Dead established a legacy in rock music that’s unmatched.

The band came out of San Francisco and became a symbol of the free-thinking and experimentation of the psychedelic era. Musically, they combined influences from bluegrass, jazz and pop to create a style that was heavy on improvisation. Their style spawned generations of bands, including many of the “jam” bands of the last 20 years.

And without a major radio hit for most of its career, the Dead spawned a huge army of fans, dubbed “Deadheads,” who followed them from show to show. By the time of the band’s dissolution in the wake of guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, it had become one of the biggest concert draws in the industry.

So when Dark Star Orchestra began, doing exact Dead sets, they had a built-in audience. Kadlecik in particular drew critical raves for his Garcia-style guitar parts. He says when playing Dead music, either in Dark Star or with Furthur, he tries to capture the Dead’s style and not just copy the notes.

“The style they created is similar to bluegrass in that certain parts hang together a certain way and you can bend things around and they still work,” he said. “They created some very beautiful, elegant forms.”

Lesh and Weir have been playing professionally longer than Kadlecik’s been alive, so he respects the way they do things. On tours, the two Dead members are mostly about the business of music, and there isn’t a lot of hanging out together.

“Phil kind of keeps to himself. We see him at shows and we chat. Bob hangs out a little more,” said Kadlecik. “Everybody is different on the road; privacy is a rare commodity. The biggest challenge on the road is to get along, so I honor whatever process supports that.”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]