Furthur Round Two: Back to the Greek

I first saw this post-Grateful Dead musical incarnation last year at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. They were here for one night only, but it was enough to convince me that this band had something going on that no other post-Jerry Garcia line-up had even come close to. Having already been a fan of lead guitarist John Kadlecik’s playing from his 12 years with Dark Star Orchestra, I was curious how he would mix with another band, no less one containing two of the Grateful Dead’s original members! Well, suffice it to say, he fit like a glove and the show I was treated to blew my mind. Songs I never dared imagine I’d hear live were suddenly pouring through the PA loud and clear and TIGHT! Something the Grateful Dead rarely managed in their final decade.

I’ve spent the last year since that show listening to a lot of Furthur on Archive.org and following their shows online with a somewhat religious fervor. I’ve also watched numerous homemade Youtube vids of their live performances to get an even deeper sense of their live venue-to-venue vibe. One of the standout realizations is that this past year has allowed Kadlecik to step up in a way he hadn’t been before; there had been a sense of “holding back,” whether real or imagined, that made me root for Kadlecik to find his new place in this band and embrace it. And it, him. And so, at last, he seems to have done just that.

This year, Furthur delighted us with a two-night run that was simply incredible. The first night was my personal favorite. There was something magical in the air and the band seemed to ride that wave. A wonderful convergence of events came together to make the night extra special. I had been lucky enough to get front row center seats. Now this is a bit misleading as there is a standing-room-only pit in front of the stage and we were right behind that; the first row of actual seats. Sadly, the pit isn’t actually a pit, so it’s not sunken, which means there were many a head (Head?) to peer over to see the band clearly. But we were close and deeply absorbed in the space.

I was also lucky enough to be treated to a VIP pass which allowed my friend and I to indulge in some nice munchies before, during (intermission) and after the show. Free drinks, warm coffee, and a chance to say howdy to the band and other Furthur family members, both new and old.

Outside, it was a somewhat brisk Southern California evening. It had been pouring rain all day and most folks I know were more than a little worried that we’d be drenched and wind-swept as the band played. After all, the tickets did say Rain Or Shine. But just hours before show time, the skies cleared as if the storm had purposefully moved through in order to clean the smoggy L.A. air for our welcomed visitors. The sun went down, the moon and stars came out, and the band took the stage for a first set that turned out to be wonderfully Europe ’72-centric. Perhaps, as this is the home of Rhino (keepers of the Grateful Dead musical archive), the band were honoring the recent release of a very successful and grandiose box-set of the entire Europe 1972 tour. Or maybe it was just in the clean air. Whatever it was, the music was soaring and heartfelt. One song after another with nary a stray tune to break the spell. MUSIC NEVER STOPPED was a nice opener, but the boys were still warming up. BERTHA got the momentum going, but it was CUMBERLAND BLUES that finally kicked into gear. This band was on fire and the temperature never dropped. The NEW SPEEDWAY BOOGIE set-closer left me immediately hungry for more.

That’s me on the left, Andy on the right.

My friend Andy, who accompanied me, had never had the privilege of seeing Furthur before (nor had he ever seen the Dead, but I’d dragged him to a couple of DSO shows which he really dug). He seemed to genuinely respond to the music and I was glad he was getting to see the band on one of its better nights (given my disappointment with a recent DSO show we had attended).

Set 2 opened with SAILOR->SAINT and I knew from the tightness of playing that we were in for a great ride. And what a ride it was. Any night that gives us the full TERRAPIN SUITE is a night worth remembering. And this one was beautiful, powerful and engrossing. I was worried for a moment when they slipped into DAYS BETWEEN, but Bobby delivered it with an ease and sensitivity I’d not heard him bring to this tune previously. Bobby’s singing has been a mixed bag for me with Furthur. He’s taken to speaking many of the words instead of singing them and his newfound “style” doesn’t always seem to be in sync with the lyrical nature of some of the tunes. Particularly the Jerry tunes. I don’t know if Bobby’s approach is due to age and a voice finally failing, or whether it’s just a creative choice. Or both. But Bobby’s vocal contributions are rather inconsistent. But on this particular night, he was exactly where he needed to be. More melodic and articulate than he’s been of late. Phil’s singing, on the other hand, has grown in leaps and bounds to be, oddly enough for a man in his early 70’s, better than it’s ever been. Phil’s EYES OF THE WORLD was spectacular. He’s really overcome what for many years had seemed like an impossible task: singing in tune and with style and purpose. Mr. Lesh has overcome any obstacles between himself and his voice and it is now a treat to hear him sing and own these songs. And to watch this man smile all night long… What a joy.

It occurred to me on that first night as I watched Phil and Bobby, that I’d been seeing these two men play live music for 32 years. They were young men when I first saw them. Now they are in their final decades. But there they are, all smiles and confidence and making truly incredible music. There is a genuine love and pride I feel watching these two old “friends” do what they love and do it so well. And I feel extremely lucky to be still participating in those events and moments. We are on borrowed time here and we all know it. And I think many are realizing that Furthur is a VERY special band; the combination of the right musicians coming together to create something incredibly unique and powerful. As if lightning has struck twice. No, this band has no Jerry Garcia (who in my mind ranks up there with Coltrane and Davis and Parker), but they do have something rare that has taken Phil and Bobby a long time to find again, something many of us believed would never happen. Thank the universe it has.

And this is all possible in no small part thanks to the mind-blowing contributions of Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, Joe Russo on drums and Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson on backup vocals. Chimenti’s craftsmanship, technique and style is incredibly moving. He is, without question, my favorite keyboardist ever to share a stage with Phil and Bobby. And that includes Keith Godcheaux, who was my favorite keyboard player to share the stage with the Grateful Dead. Chimenti’s heart and soul is in his playing. I can’t get enough of it.

Joe Russo on drums is not only a powerhouse of a drummer, but his musical instincts and skill make this band. Without him, there would be no Furthur, plain and simple. His pulse and momentum, his singular rhythmic voice, infuse every moment. And Sunshine B and Jeff P add that much-needed layer of beauty to the songs. Songs which cry out for -songs which demand– the lilting, melodic tones of their combined harmonies and their profound and passionate interpretations.

And even though I’ve already sang his praises, Kadlecik has overcome any doubts Dead Heads may have had by proving that he is not a Jerry-clone, but an inspired, supremely talented guitar player who has taken the influence of Garcia’s style and turned it into his own rich voice with unique phrasings and a sincere emotional resonance that is pure John K. His ability to live in the music is staggering. We are all very lucky that the path he is on has led him here.

Due to a strict curfew, the first night’s show was cut short and set two ended with an abrupt climax to GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD FEELING BAD (throwing John K for a moment). NOT FADE AWAY had been the prearranged set closer, but the band never got there. A quick donor rap by Phil was followed by an energetic, but highly truncated JOHNNY B. GOODE (which also threw John K for a moment. Maybe Phil and Bobby need to communicate with him a tad better. Under the circumstances, I thought John adapted with surprising grace and creativity. You had to really pay attention to realize something was off at all). And no customary stage bow. But this was all good and done with an immense sense of humor, which just adds to the vibe of a celebration more than a “show.”

The second night was dedicated to the late Steve Jobs. This was not revealed, however, until the end of the first set. I’m glad it was as I had been feeling a lack of cohesion to the set list. The first night felt like a very particular vision, there was almost a story being told. This first set on night two lacked that. Until Phil announced its inspiration and then it all made sense; it all fell into place. Pink Floyd’s TIME was the first set highlight for me, as I imagine it was for many. Ethereal and energized, the set really kicked in for me at this point and the follower, DEATH DON’T HAVE NO MERCY (one of my all-time faves), cinched it. I had chills and Bobby, again, brought a rare level of perfection to his vocal approach. This was followed by RIPPLE which is seen by many as the quintessential Grateful Dead song. It can’t be sung without conjuring up Jerry and all things lost to us. All the while filling us with a serene warmth that is known for instigating those irrepressible smiles that so often go hand-in-hand with the music of the Grateful Dead.

The second set was just a stellar set list. I still preferred the energy of the first night more (it’s a very personal thing, quite subjective), but no one could complain about the choice of songs or how they were played on this night. THE WHEEL and UNCLE JOHN’S BAND, THE OTHER ONE into ST. STEPHEN… So much fierce energy, so much joy… I had a distracted moment during the second set where I chose to head down to the pit during MOUNTAIN SONG to meet a friend (and grab another VIP pass). I usually like to keep all distractions to a minimum and allow the music to take me away. As much as I tried to stay focused and involved, this little excursion took me out of the music for a short time. I got to watch I KNOW YOU RIDER from the pit, then traveled back to my section B seats and the dear friends who I had the honor of sharing this show with. Being close to the stage is never a substitute for being with good folk.

There were a few songs that were on the pre-arranged set list for this night that got cut at the last minute. SUNSHINE DAYDREAM was initially planned to follow RIPPLE, but Phil seemed to recognize the perfection of ending the set right there and made it so. Set two was supposed to open with CRYPTICAL ENVELOPMENT (one of my favorite pieces ever!), but that was cut. Why? Who knows. Perhaps awareness of curfew time-constraints, or maybe being too nail-on-the-head for a Steve Jobs-dedicated show (“You know he had to die…”). No matter. The band more than made up for what we didn’t get with what we did get! The band left us with the melodic and harmonious intonations of ATTICS OF MY LIFE buoyant in our hearts and minds.

October 5 & 6, 2011 at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles were two nights of bliss I will keep with me forever. Much of my life has been happily consumed with the music of the Grateful Dead and I am ecstatic to be able to continue to experience this music in a live setting, re-imagined, rediscovered by the men who originally created it, taken to new heights. Furthur is not the Grateful Dead. And they don’t seem to be attempting to recreate that. They are their own band, with a unique sound. A jazzier outgrowth of the Jerry Garcia variety of Grateful Dead-influenced experiences. And that is exactly what was needed to allow these musicians to be their own band, and not some fancy cover band that could never live up to their glory days. Furthur is currently immersed in and embracing their own glory days. And I am thrilled to be alive to share it.

Here is the entire TERRAPIN STATION SUITE from the first night for your listening and viewing pleasure:

Oct. 5, 2011
Oct. 6, 2011
Furthur Round Two: Back to the Greek