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.
Let me begin by saying I love these guys. I’ve been a hardcore DeadHead since 1975. It was a joy to see Phil Lesh smiling and having so much fun up there on stage for the first night of the 5-night Fare Thee Well 50th celebration of the Grateful Dead with the “core-four” remaining members of the band plus guests.
For many of us, there is no Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia. But the songs themselves and Garcia’s legacy seem to be (and hopefully are) undying; The spirit of the band, the essence of the music and all that it has inspired. And the band certainly tried to capture that spirit with what might well be the most ballsy setlist imaginable for a first night gig of this long-anticipated reunion. It was a DeadHead dream come true in terms of song choices. Not a single post-1970 tune was played. The jams were long and casual. Incredible rarities like Cream Puff War and What’s Become of The Baby were played, as well as one of the most beloved trifectas of all time, Dark Star-> St. Stephen-> The Eleven (with the William Tell bridge!!!). On the surface, this looks amazing. Unfortunately in my opinion, the quality of musicianship on display could not match the clear and loving intent of all involved.
I post the below article written by Stewart Sallo in the Boulder Weekly titled LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, NOT THE GRATEFUL DEAD not because I agree with it, but to represent part of the experience Dead-Heads are having. This article is far more cynical than I am. I would prefer to believe the remaining members of the Grateful Dead had the best of intentions here in trying to satisfy the many needs involved. And I think it turned out to be a far greater beast than any of them anticipated.
Perhaps that’s naive, I dunno. I can certainly see it as an opportunity to both celebrate the Grateful Dead’s 50 years AND make some money. This is, after all, one of the ways in which these guys earn their living. And they’ve hit retirement age now. They still play music, but they no longer tour and they rarely cut albums. So yes, this was also a chance to make some money. I hold no grudge with that. Artists should be paid and paid well. It’s just unfortunate that this event has also created much heartache and disappointment for many.
We all knew that the remaining members of the Grateful Dead were probably going to do SOMETHING to celebrate the 50 year mark. I was curious and a little uncertain about how I felt at the idea of celebrating the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary 20 years after Jerry Garcia’s death. Since that epic loss, the Grateful Dead‘s remaining members have played both together and separately, but never under the moniker “Grateful Dead.” And appropriately so, in my opinion. Jerry Garcia wasn’t just a guitarist, he was one of the main reasons the Grateful Dead sound and energy existed at all.
I suppose there has always been rude people at live shows. Any concert I’ve ever been to has had talkers. You know, those folks who seem to be only peripherally aware that someone is on stage making music and that there are people actually engaged in listening (or trying to listen, as the case may be). And of course, the louder the music, the louder the chatter.
But it used to be that a few dagger stares or a handful of friendly requests of “Shhh” or “Could you please keep it down?” would more or less do the trick. Sometimes, getting up and moving to another location within the venue would be a viable solution. But nowadays, these talkers seem to have become a larger percentage of the audience. And recently, some on-stage artists have had to be very vocal about their frustration. And rightfully so. I applaud these musicians and my heart breaks for their frustration. As my heart breaks for all those in attendance whose experience was negatively impacted by those whose conversations were more important to them than honoring and respecting the musicians they supposedly paid some pretty steep prices to see (but obviously not listen to).
A few years back, I was at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles seeing the band Furthur and the woman next to me was talking up a storm. I mean full-blown, in-depth conversation. FAR louder than the music. And no matter how many people would kindly ask her and her friends to keep it down, she couldn’t control herself for more than one or two minutes before the top-of-her-lungs chatter began again. When I finally asked her outright “Why?” she replied “Sometimes this music is just better as background” to which I suggested that maybe it would make better background in her living room and not at the Greek Theatre where the rest of us are actually trying to listen and be engaged. She laughed, as if I’d been joking, and wen’t back to being her apparently oblivious –or just plain rude– self.
This past year, seeing the same band at the same venue, the gentlemen sitting next to me were engaged in a full-blown conversation for almost the entire duration of the band’s 3 hour-plus concert. They’d look up periodically at the band if the music got loud enough (loud enough to interrupt their conversation, that is), but they quickly returned to their very important socializing, completely unaware of all the people whose experiences they were sabotaging.
These people appear to have no sense of what the group dynamic is. Or the power of music. And since it’s not against the law to talk at such venues (though it seems new rules are starting to – thankfully- be put in place at some smaller houses), more and more people seem to be doing it.
Bob Weir, one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, was playing a solo acoustic set at his own Sweetwater Music Hall in Northern California recently when he felt impelled to end his set in mid-song when audience members refused to stop talking during his performance. Despite his vocal efforts to gain some respect and silence the offending ticket-holders, Weir finally chose to give up and walk off stage. And I don’t blame him. When he returned later in the evening backed by his band, the chatter continued, eliciting pleas of “Shut the Fuck up!” from this now completely frustrated and insulted bandleader.
Several years ago, performer Jeff Tweedy stopped his show in mid-set to confront the audience. He asked them outright what they needed. Was he doing something wrong? Was there something else he should be doing to gain their attention and respect?
Is this a reflection of something bigger? Has it indeed gotten worse, or has it always been this bad? Should venues implement a no-talking rule (at least within reason)? I know at the Hollywood Bowl, ushers will ask attendees to please refrain from talking if they are disturbing other patrons during a concert of the Philharmonic. So why not during all other concerts? Is other music somehow less important? Or is it just our perception of appropriate behavior in conjunction with certain styles of music? Perhaps, we need to ask these ushers to step in and quiet these disrespectful or apathetic talkers down. Or perhaps there should be a special “talking section” where folks can hear the music, but engage in conversation at the same time without disturbing the rest of the audience. We certainly don’t put up with talking in a movie theater. We understand that it destroys the experience of engaging with the film. The same is true for engaging with music. And perhaps more musicians ought to step up and ask the audience to be quiet. Despite the fact that, as in Weir’s case, it seems to not initially make a difference. But perhaps it’s the first step in changing the public awareness and expectations surrounding musical events. Instead of allowing those loud few to set the rules of conduct, why don’t musicians and audiences alike take back the live musical experience and demand a certain mode of conduct which is appropriate for such events. Like I said, we already implement this in movie theaters (though talkers do find their way in there and are, often, eventually silenced by an outraged crowd). We also do it in libraries. We set the rules of appropriate conduct. We do it at the symphony, which often takes place in many of the same venues as other types of concerts. And at the opera. So why not all concerts?
If only I could steal the voices of these folks –just temporarily– like Ursula in THE LITTLE MERMAID… I promise to give them back the moment the show’s over.
You have my word.
When Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia wrote the lilting tune BIRD SONG, it was a heartfelt ode to Janis Joplin. It grew into one of the most beloved and experimental of all Grateful Dead songs and it remained in their repertoire until the end.
Now, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir’s extraordinary band, Furthur, plays the tune, but with a twist: after the extended jam, Phil changes the words from “All I know is something like a bird within her sang” to “All I know is something like a bird within HIM sang. All I know HE sang a little while and then flew on.” Garcia’s ode to another has become Phil’s ode to Jerry. Yes, Phil’s deep voice doesn’t capture the delicate qualities of Garcia’s, but there’s still purpose behind the song and it still takes us on quite a journey, albeit a rather different one than Garcia and the Grateful Dead took us on.
And just to compare, here’s a BIRD SONG from the Grateful Dead in Veneta, Oregon, 1972 (widely considered one of the best BIRD SONGs ever played), and another by Furthur at the (rainy) Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Florida earlier this year (plus a couple extra tunes just in case you wanna stay in the groove!).
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: