I’ve been listening here and there to this current incarnation of the Grateful Dead legacy; bits and pieces as they appear on Archive.org and other sites. While I am already a fan of their newest lead guitarist John Kadlecik (of Dark Star Orchestra fame), I have found what I’d heard so far to be “interesting,” even quite good at times, but never great. Over the last few years I’ve become a shameless Dark Star Orchestra fan. In large part because that band feels more like the Grateful Dead experience to me than the Grateful Dead themselves did in their last 10 or so years. With a few exceptions, the Dead lost their ability to play tightly as they wound down into their third and final act. Perhaps it was lack of rehearsals, or maybe Jerry’s heroin problem, or perhaps a lack of interest or pure exhaustion, I don’t know. What I do know is they were no longer the band I fell in love with. I still went to see them, and I always yearned for more, but I was also fighting a mounting disappointment that they had become rather sloppy.
In listening to Furthur online, I got the sense that this band was tighter than the Grateful Dead had been toward the end, but still not as tight as, say, Dark Star Orchestra. But last night’s show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles turned me around. I can’t tell you how this show will translate to tape, but I can tell you that being there was a very different experience from any recording I’ve heard to date. What I witnessed was a very tight band. And a very advanced one. Perhaps they’ve returned to the stage after a short break with a newfound enthusiasm, well-rehearsed and ready to move things another notch up the musical ladder. It certainly seems so.
For the record, this is not the Grateful Dead. Most of the songs may be, but the approach is different. This band is even more jazz-influenced than the Dead were at their “jazziest.” With rhythm guitarist Bob Weir (not just bearded, but bespectacled now as well) and bass player Phil Lesh the only Grateful Dead members in attendance, Furthur truly is a unique animal less concerned with recreating the Grateful Dead experience and seemingly more concerned with exploring new sounds and new directions to take the music. And if last night’s show is any indication, they are succeeding masterfully.
No longer bound by the structure of the Grateful Dead’s set lists (which, though improvised and ever-changing, nonetheless became a bit predictable), Furthur has thrown the rule book out. Any song, from any era can (and will) be played anywhere in any set at any time. This, for Dead Heads, is pure nirvana. Everything is possible.
Added to this lineup is keyboardist Jeff Chimenti who is easily my favorite “Dead” pianist since Keith. Jazzy and daring, Chimenti never tries to overpower the band, but flows energetically as he weaves in and out of the spaces between the other instruments, stepping forward front and center only when an opening permits. And when he does, watch out! The music is about to reach new heights! I’m one of the few who was never a huge fan of Brent Mydland (I know, I know, sacrilege…). I felt his playing, as supremely talented as it was, overpowered the rest of the band and made it that much easier for them to ease into sloppy musicianship as Brent’s keyboards would usually cover any such “mistakes.” Even MORNING DEW would climax prematurely due to Brent’s overuse of organ and his extreme volume in any given mix. Perhaps in Brent’s defense, he was just covering up the gaps left by a band that had lost some of its drive. But either way, Chimenti never traverses that same path and I could not have enjoyed his participation more. I hung on every note with delight.
Drummer Joe Russo is less a replacement for the Kreutzmann/Hart duo (the other surviving Grateful Dead members not included in this lineup), but more reminiscent of those years when Billy Kreutzmann was the band’s sole drummer. Like Billy, Joe does more than just hold the band together, he cuts a clear path so that they may dance unrestrained, their individual sonic personalities skipping with complete abandon through open spaces to come together with all the love and affection of a family reunited. Just listen to his uninhibited and self-assured intro to the show opener, ALLIGATOR.
Following ALLIGATOR, the remainder of the first set at L.A.’s Greek was completely engaging. Filled with songs the Grateful Dead stopped playing in the 60’s, as well as a brand new song and some old favorites, the band wove a pleasant tapestry that was, as it would turn out, just a small taste of what was to come. By time the set ended with MASON’S CHILDREN, I felt the band was just getting up to speed, even though they’d already taken us on some sublime spiraling musical excursions.
The second set hit the ground running with a welcome trip back to the 60’s once again with a pair of songs I’d always longed to hear live, BORN CROSS-EYED and NEW POTATO CABOOSE. I was in heaven right from the get-go and the set list just kept getting better and better. The complexities and nuances of this new incarnation came clearly into focus. For the first time, I was able to let go of what I expected them to be and was able to embrace who this band had become, who they were now.
UNBROKEN CHAIN was a second set highlight, less because of the beauty of the song and its once mythic status, but because, in the hands of this new band, it had become an epic musical journey in ways I’d never imagined possible. This was only slightly overshadowed by what turned out to be one of the best live MORNING DEWs I’ve ever heard. I had to keep snapping myself back to reality and remind myself that I was seeing this live and not just listening to an old CD from the past.
And even though they could have ended the set with the DEW and no one would have been anything less than completely satisfied, the boys decided to treat us to a full-on, no-holds-barred PLAYING IN THE BAND before wrapping up the set.
Furthur is a band worth seeing. If you appreciate true musical exploration, if you love the music of the Grateful Dead (and I mean their full songbook, not just the “hits”), then this incarnation is a must-see. And while it’s still true that Bobby and Phil are not the best vocalists to be found, reinforcements have been brought in in the form of backup singers Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson. And Kadlecik is no slouch himself with a somewhat rough-around-the-edges Garcia-like lilt to his voice. And it should be noted that Phil appears to have taken some more singing lessons or is simply pushing himself farther than he’s gone before as he, truthfully, has never sounded better. Rearranging his vocal approach to many of the songs, I was hard-pressed to find those wince-worthy, off-key notes Phil has been known to hit on more than one occasion. In fact, there was a downright beauty to his approach this night and I hope he continues to challenge himself in this manner as the results are already enormous. The splendor of these songs came through in a way they had not for many, many years.
On a less enthusiastic note, the audience in attendance at the Greek was a mixed bag. I don’t know if it’s just the L.A. crowd or if this is a staple of the concert experience everywhere, but I was amazed –nay, shocked— by the sheer number of people who seemed more focused on engaging in full-on, top-of-lung conversation than in listening to the music. On more than one occasion, I found myself aurally competing to stay focused on the band and not on the selfish verbiage that was spewing forth all around me by those who appeared less interested in music and far more interested in socializing and networking. It took some deep breaths (and the occasional dirty look and random friendly comment to the worst transgressors) before I was able to just let go and not let the less-attractive elements of my surroundings take away from all the wonderful happenings going on. Thankfully, the music grew louder as the show progressed and it became increasingly easier to smile and ignore those nearby who were clearly mislead into believing we had all bought our tickets to hear them lecture, commiserate and exchange business cards.
The other slight complaint I had was that I was never fully satisfied with the sound mix. This seems to be in keeping with my experience of the live recordings. Vocals are often soft and a bit muffled, and John Kadlecik’s lead guitar is almost always too low in the mix, rarely standing out above the other instruments. Whether this is by design or not, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve also felt, both at this show and the others I’ve listened to, that Kadlecik is holding back. After experiencing him in Dark Star Orchestra on numerous occasions, I know what he is capable of as a guitarist and, as good a job as he did last night, it was still restrained compared to Kadlecik’s full musical capabilities. Again, this may simply be the sound and style this particular band is after. But one senses that with slightly looser reigns, Kadlecik could help this band go even further (no pun intended). And if you can’t loosen the reigns a bit, at least turn him up! Luckily, by the show’s last third, the mix seemed to agree with me as Kadlecik (particularly during MORNING DEW) finally landed front and center in the mix. Oddly enough, up until that point, it wasn’t Bobby and Phil who dominated, but the drummer and keyboard player. So while I would have preferred a different balance in the mix, at the end of the day it wasn’t enough to take away from the experience in any dramatic fashion and, as said, it did improve by show’s end.
Soon I’ll listen to Furthur at the Greek in download format and see if the experience of the show I attended translates to the live recording medium. Will it sound as good to me then as it did in the moment? Or will they once again sound like that band I wish were just a little tighter, just a tad more polished? I’ll let you know. But for the moment, as I sip my morning coffee and reminisce about the night before, they are still powerful in my memory. And I can still feel them in my dancing feet.
Here’s the set list followed by a few video snippets I took (no full songs, I’m afraid. I was too busy dancing to commit that much time to recording. But it’s a taste…).