For anyone who read my most recent posts, you know I was not a fan of the music-making that took place in Santa Clara, CA. at the Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead celebration. To clarify, my intent is not to diminish the experience of those who were there or those who genuinely loved the music. So much goes into a concert experience and these particular concerts are so very emotionally charged. I’ve not talked to one single person who was in attendance in either Santa Clara or Chicago who did not remark on the amazing energy that was present in both stadiums. Through the roof. The outpouring of love must have been tremendous. That experience in itself transcends the quality of the music-making, no question. The sheer celebration and flood of emotional and spiritual experiences. The sheer importance of this music in our lives, this bond we share through it, the journeys we’ve taken both internally and externally, the absolute life-affirming nature of the entire Grateful Dead experience.
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.
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:
This has nothing to do with the talent or skill of Dark Star Orchestra. I have never seen them not play well. But I am learning something about myself that I must face: I’m simply not fond of the Grateful Dead’s set lists or sound post 1984. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, where DSO is concerned, I don’t need to see them recreate any shows post 1979. But Dark Star Orchestra doesn’t play for me and me alone, they do what they do. Which is recreate Grateful Dead concerts from the band’s many eras.
And this is where I have to be honest with myself. The Grateful Dead were never the same band for me after keyboardist Keith Godchaux left and Brent Mydland stepped in to take his place. Brent was a supremely talented musician. No one who knows anything about music could deny this. However, his style of playing, singing and songwriting was so vastly different from the Grateful Dead I fell in love with that I was never fully able to embrace his contribution. Ironically, I never had the opportunity to see Keith perform with the Grateful Dead. My first show was in September of 1979 shortly after Brent joined the band. But I had been listening to the Grateful Dead for many, many years before I had the opportunity to see them live. And in those early days of Brent, he was a bit more subdued. But within a couple of years, his playing became busy and forceful to the point where almost all the quiet spaces within the music were filled. For me, it was a sound deluge that diminished the delicacy I had come to love and expect from the Grateful Dead. The jazz-influence that Keith advanced in the band –his sense of when to step up and when to step back– was lost with Brent’s enthusiastic contribution. It wasn’t wrong, just different. And, for my personal taste, less preferable.
Now understand, ever since the beginning of the Grateful Dead, they were a band capable of vast depths of sound; they could be as quiet as a single soft breath or as loud and complex as a city under siege. But it was the contrast between these two spaces that made the adventure of seeing and listening to the Grateful Dead a genuine journey. Brent diluted this contrast for me. The cacophony became more consistent, more the norm. And, as will happen with the addition of any new sound, any new influence, it effected how the other band members approached the music.
Then there were the songs that Brent wrote. Simply put, Brent’s skills as a songwriter were not in sync with what attracted me so intensely to the Grateful Dead. I know that Brent was profoundly disheartened to see so many people choosing his songs as their bathroom break or an opportunity to visit concessions, but he never seemed to consider that his style of songwriting was not the kind of music that attracted many Dead Heads to the Dead; Brent’s songs were more direct in their storytelling, less ethereal and poetic. They were also seeped in a pop-ballad style that seemed to defy the Grateful Dead’s deeper exploratory nature. Yes, the Grateful Dead were a reflection of all types of American music, but I suppose the part of Americana that influenced Brent never appealed to me and, as talented as he was, I never found a way into his music. It simply did not move me. In fact, it did quite the opposite. For me, it stopped the show in its tracks.
Later audiences seemed to embrace Brent’s songwriting. In many ways, it was more in sync with what drew these later crowds to the Grateful Dead. Pop songs like TOUCH OF GREY and WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE or FOOLISH HEART, all Garcia/Hunter originals, were appealing to a generation that preferred “ditties” over depth. I rarely enjoyed these songs and, like Brent’s musical preferences, they stopped the show for me.
Last night’s Dark Star Orchestra show at the El Rey in Los Angeles was filled with these show-stoppers. And, as if pre-planned, the audience seemed to be made up of far more frat-boys (of varying ages) as well as men who clearly spend an inordinate amount of time at the gym pumping iron. This evening would find them with their trendy-clad girlfriends by their sides. It was like DSO were playing 24-Hour Fitness.
In effect, the show recreated was from May 9, 1987 and the audience matched the era. Eek. This was a time when the Grateful Dead were slowly being pushed out of their favorite venues due to uncontrollable crowds. The scene was turning, and not for the better. TOUCH OF GREY ushered in a whole new audience that changed the vibe forever.
Now, one good thing about DSO recreating these later shows is that DSO is, invariably, a far tighter band than the Grateful Dead were at this point in their development (or devolution, as many would refer to it). So the playing last night was solid. Tight.
But I’ve discovered (or more aptly, am ready to admit) that the allure of DSO for me is in seeing those earlier shows. Opening with SUGAR MAGNOLIA-> SUGAREE was very welcome. And even ME AND MY UNCLE-> MEXICALI BLUES was fun and well-played and still in keeping with the oldies but goodies theme I so love. But then suddenly, I’m plunged into WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE, a song I never understood the appeal of. For me, it was not reflective of Garcia’s musical strengths. If this were the music of the Grateful Dead from the get-go, I never would have been attracted to them. This was followed by the (IMHO) dreadful Brent tune TONS OF STEEL. Try as I did, I was not able to shed the sinking feeling building in my gut. I was no longer “in” the music as I had been for those first two songs. Then BROTHER ESAU followed. While a far better song than the two previous, it’s still something I have a hard time getting excited about. This trifecta left me feeling disappointed and “outside” the show.
Luckily, the TENNESSEE JED and LET IT GROW brought me back up, though never to the level where I had started. There was something in my gut, expectations foiled, that I could not shake. Truth be told, as soon as I walked into the El Rey and saw that the guitars and drums were set up for a show most-likely from the 80’s or 90’s, my heart sank a bit. But there was an extra mic set up which gave me hope that this would possibly be an original setlist and not a show from my least favorite era (as it suggested the inclusion of the fabulous Lisa Mackey in the Donna Godchaux role). Alas, the extra mic was removed and my hopes dashed.
The second set started off with more dismay. TOUCH OF GREY. I could live a long, happy life and never hear this song again. It’s a fun little ditty (there’s that word again), but it’s a sad replacement for the possibilities of second set openers the Grateful Dead were accustomed to treating us to. This was followed by LOOKS LIKE RAIN. Never one of my favorites, it was at least an older tune, but one usually reserved for first sets, not second. Again, given what second sets often had to offer, this felt distressing. I was, at this point, thoroughly removed from the show and could have actually walked out and called it a night.
Now I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my statements here. Dark Star Orchestra played these songs, each and every one of them, with energy and conviction. As I said before, in many ways better than the Grateful Dead themselves had in 1987. The disappointment I was feeling began and ended with me. No one else. It’s my personal taste and desire. It’s what I want to get out of the experience of seeing DSO that was unfulfilled. DSO was just doing what DSO does. And, try as I might to counter it, so was I.
The HE’S GONE-> JAM was very well played, particularly the long OTHER ONE TEASE JAM which started to lure me back in. DRUMS->SPACE were customary and enjoyable, but the sinking feeling in my gut had already settled too deeply. The rest of the show was filled with songs I truly love. All of them soared with energy. And at times I was moderately transported, but that feeling in my gut that had settled there never left. It remained like a shroud over even the best moments. I was aware of trying to get rid of it, to let it go and enjoy being there, listening to live music again. But my attempt ultimately failed. I could not transcend the moment.
All of this is made even worse by the fact that I’ve been reliving the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 tour in its entirety thanks to the recent release of the entire tour on CD. This is widely considered the Grateful Dead’s best tour ever. And I wouldn’t argue that. So much so that the set list from ’87 just seems downright lazy by comparison. A friend of mine also in attendance pointed out that DSO could have played any show from ’65 through the first half of ’79 and you wouldn’t hear a single song that would disappoint. The same can’t be said for any show post.
The only criticism I have of DSO as a band is that, now with the inclusion of Jeff Mattson -who I must say is an amazing guitarist and about the best replacement for former lead-guitarist John Kadlecik that one could imagine– this incarnation of the band seems intent on bringing every song to its highest peak. And they’re damn good at doing it. But there’s something almost “manufactured” in their doing so. As if subtlety and nuance were not quite as important as blowing minds. It happened so much that it ceased to be special and started to feel too easy. It didn’t feel organic. It wasn’t the music playing the band. This felt pre-planned in some way. Now that may not be accurate to what was actually taking place for the musicians, but it was my experience. Sometimes making a song “explode” is not the best thing for the soul of the music. But I’m just an audience member and probably one of the few who didn’t walk out of the El Rey last night satisfied. It is my personal cross to bear, I suppose. Again, it’s what I want that is not always in sync with what DSO is offering. That is no fault of theirs. That’s all on me and I take full responsibility for it.
I wish in the future I could know whether DSO were going to play a show from an era I want to travel back in time and experience, or whether they’re recreating an era I need not revisit. That would help me decide whether or not I need attend, to avoid disappointment or embrace that which I love and yearn for. But such things are not the way of the world. So I must take my chances, make my decisions. Perhaps I’ll just see DSO every other year and hope for the best.
Jeff Mattson made his Los Angeles debut as the lead guitarist/singer for Dark Star Orchestra Friday December 3rd, 2010 at the El Rey Theatre. My favorite venue to see this incredible band was the perfect setting for Mattson’s introduction to Angeleno Dead Heads and DSO Heads alike. I’ve been listening to Mattson’s work within this incarnation of the band and have been wildly impressed. But nothing I heard came close to seeing these folks work their magic in a live setting. No recording can do it justice.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here: Dark Star Orchestra is the closest thing to the real Grateful Dead experience I have ever come across. At times DSO even one-ups the boys, particularly when recreating shows from the late-80’s and 90’s when the Dead themselves had clearly moved beyond their prime. Luckily for me, however, DSO recreated a GD show from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles originally performed on January 10th, 1978, one of my favorite years out of the 30 they played. The set list was as follows:
Set Two: Jack Straw ; It Must Have Been The Roses ; Estimated Prophet > He’s Gone > Drums > The Other One > Wharf Rat > Franklin’s Tower > Around And Around
Encore: U.S. Blues
DSO added one more song as filler, something they do quite often. On this night, we got keyboardist Rob Baracco recreating Pigpen’s “Mr. Charlie.” The perfect topper to a perfect evening.
Mattson’s an interesting fellow to watch. His seemingly expressionless features can quite suddenly transform into a wide, buck-toothed grin as he –and us– are caught in a moment of uncontrolled ecstasy. Simply put, Mattson is a joy to watch and the music that rolls effortlessly off his fingertips lifts the very floor beneath your feet. And the rest of the band grin right alongside him as the music crescendos again and again, spreading irrepressible smiles through the audience until the whole joint is dancing wild, screams of joy bursting into the air, hairs standing on end. It is one of the great moments in life that remind you just what an amazing experience we are capable of achieving here on this earth.
It is truly a gift. And just in time for Chanukah. :)
I recorded most (though sadly not all) of the second set on my iPhone. It’s far from great quality and I’ll be replacing it with better as soon as something shows up on Archive.org or elsewhere. But in the meantime, this will have to do. And I apologize for the loud woman who appears periodically throughout the recording. She was a sweetheart, but she must have been feeling A.D.D. this night as she rarely stopped talking or moving. She loved the music, but being able to concentrate on it for more than a few seconds at a time was not her strong suit. That said, she had a good time and couldn’t have been nicer. The recording, however, picks her up like another member of the band. And a less talented one, I’m afraid. But that’s the live concert-going experience, warts and all, as it were. Nonetheless, it felt like family in there and, though I arrived alone, I never for a moment felt it. And this woman helped make that possible for me and for that I am grateful.
If you’d like to listen to the second set from Estimated Prophet on, you can get an mp3 HERE.
In addition, here are some vids I also took with my iPhone. Excuse the jerky nature of the image. I was dancing, dontcha know. Make sure you check out THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED. One of the best I’ve seen. Ever.
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…).
Continuing their newly discovered ability to dip into the 1960’s, DSO has once again recreated a 1969 Dead show. This one from 04/22/69 at The Ark in Boston, MA. This is the oldest set of Grateful Dead music DSO has ever performed in their 13 years together. Very cool, if you ask me. And we have lead guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mattson to thank in large part for these stellar, ageless journeys.
This show also dipped into Jerry Garcia’s August 1st Birthday just before the encores. Performing at the Town Ballroom in Buffalo, NY, on the night of July 31st of this year, DSO wished Jerry a very happy birthday before plunging into a staggering Viola Lee Blues> Alligator> Viola Lee Blues.
Close your eyes, go HERE, and enjoy the ride.
Taking a slight departure from Mr. Garcia’s own playing, I want to focus a bit on his legacy and the “scene” that lives on in his wake. While there are many jam bands out there, none have captured the Grateful Dead experience as closely as Dark Star Orchestra. Anyone who has followed my Dead-oriented scribblings here on this site know that the last few years have yielded an ever-increasing fascination for me with this band. While technically a Grateful Dead “cover” band, DSO has taken that concept to an entirely new level. You see, to be a Dead “cover” band, one must, well… depart from playing this music exactly as the Dead did themselves. Meaning, since the Grateful Dead’s live gigs were all about improvisation and never playing the same show twice, any cover band worth its two-cents would have to embrace improvisation to the fullest extreme. So, while DSO do quite often recreate entire set lists from Dead shows past, and the style and sound is based on the Grateful Dead at that particular time in history, the jamming is all Dark Star Orchestra. So in order to truly capture the spirit of the Dead with any accuracy or integrity, a Dead cover band would have to be one hell of a jam band in their own right.
With their new lead guitarist, Jeff Mattson, DSO is taking the music one step beyond. I’ve written this before and I’m bound to write it again. But it warrants repeating. We’ll never see Jerry Garcia grace a stage again (in this world, anyway!), but his legacy lives on in Dark Star Orchestra. While the remaining Grateful Dead members still perform the old tunes (now, ironically, with ex-DSO lead guitarist John Kadlecik), they have grown and morphed into a very different band with a rather different and wholly original approach to the music. Still steeped in improv and still full of joy, I have found the music a tad less exciting than when Jerry lead the way. They no longer feel like the Grateful Dead. In many ways, they are a lesser cover band, as odd as that may sound. Never as tight as I would like them to be, but still engaged in the act of making improvisational music and spreading joy, the remaining Grateful Dead members now take a back seat to the Grateful Dead experience as it had been during Garcia’s reign and Dark Star Orchestra stands in their stead. And that’s okay. Music is meant to grow and Phil, Bobby, Mickey and Bill are ever-changing, ever-exploring. But when I need me a true Grateful Dead live concert fix, I go see DSO. And to prove my point, here’s an absolutely smoking hot live performance by DSO just last month (July 8, 2010) at the All Good Music Festival in Masontown, WV. This is easily one of the tightest, most energetic shows I’ve ever listened to. Including by the Grateful Dead themselves. Sound too good to be true? Take a listen and you tell me. I would love to hear your thoughts. And, though this is an audience recording, it’s one of the cleanest and clearest I’ve ever heard.
So strap on those headphones, crank the volume way up high, and hold on tight.
The bus leaves from HERE.