Furthur, more or less: Returning to the scene of the Dead 30 years later
I went back with some misgivings – no Jerry Garcia will do that to even the most ardent of Deadheads. I’d seen the video clips, heard Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s vocals on those Jerry songs we hold sacred. Was that a keyboard part where Jerry’s guitar once rang out?
I was a little nervous that Furthur – Bob and Phil the only remnants from the band that musically and magically blew people’s minds in its heyday – would be only slightly more than a nostalgia act.
A little background: This year is the 30th anniversary of what I call “My Deadhead Years.” From my first show in 1980 (Boston Garden) to my last, July 4, 1987 (Foxboro Stadium with Dylan), I saw 13 shows ¬– from Rochester and Saratoga, N.Y., to Hampton, Va., to Portland, Maine, Providence and Boston. OK, I wasn’t the biggest Deadhead ever, and never traveled with the band (though I did see back to back shows at least twice.) But I did my time on “the bus.”
In 1983, I saw the Dead five times. The early ‘80s may not have been Dead’s greatest years, but I saw some pretty great shows and had really great times.
The point is that while I still like to listen to old Dead recordings now and then, I have moved on musically – and a lot of that is due to them. I found Johnny Cash through their version of “Big River” and found folk and alt-country in part because of their influence.
Since those days – and especially since Jerry died – I never really had an urge to see any of the other iterations of the band live. I did catch Bob’s Ratdog at the Gathering of Vibes a few years back, which was enjoyable in the festival atmosphere.
But a couple of weeks ago, I was offered great seats for a Furthur show at an outdoor venue in Boston. I wouldn’t have gone without the offer and if a good friend (and also a former Deadhead) had not taken me up on the idea of going with me.
Both of us were hesitant, hoping it wouldn’t taint our blissful memories of Dead shows past. We pored over previous days’ setlists, discussed which songs we didn’t necessarily care to hear, and spent many Facebook posts exchanging videos on YouTube – the good and the not-so-good.
The night came and we strode down the street to the venue. To our surprise, the Dead culture – selling of T-shirts, pins and other trinkets; the raised finger in search of the “miracle” ticket – was still intact. Young adults in tie-dye happily mingled with older generation fans in ratty 1990s-era tour shirts. The ever-present smell of marijuana, inside and outside of the venue, stirred the senses and brought back memories of “the scene” surrounding the Dead shows of my youth. It was nice to see that the good vibes surrounding the band, however outdated they felt, had not completely faded away.
So what about the music? That’s the concern we actually started with. Is it still vital? Does it hold up without Jerry Garcia – his voice, his magical guitar work?
The answer is yes and no.
While Phil and Bob have not produced a lot of “new” music for Furthur, they do have an extensive catalog of Dead tunes to choose from and they seem willing to perform it all. On the night we were there, they dug out a stellar “Crazy Fingers” as well as the entire “Weather Report Suite” and other gems. They also sprinkle in a good variety of tunes from other groups. Our show had Phil singing a Ryan Adams tune. They have been known to perform songs by the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and more.
As with Dead shows in the band’s prime, they mix up setlists nightly and also change the way the songs are played. (On our night, they slowed “Black Peter” down to a crawl.)
But what separates Furthur from nostalgia acts is the improvisational jams that come out of each song and the interplay between band members which the Dead was famously noted for. The musicianship and the desire to take the music in new directions is what keep the concerts fresh. It is still amazing to hear the band chug through “Sugaree,” a song I’ve probably heard 100 times either live or on recording. It still gave me goosebumps. A couple of times during the show, I would lose track of what song they were playing as they went into extensive jams only to reorient myself as they came back to a familiar chorus. It was awesome to be in that moment again.
So is Jerry Garcia missed? Uh, yes.
Where Furthur falters is the vocals. While Jerry had his moments of warbles and mumbles, Furthur relies on Bob and Phil too much. Bob’s voice on his own songs can be tough enough. But him handling what were Jerry’s tunes is not pretty. He still seems to ignore his vocal range. Phil has an interesting voice and vocal sense, but it’s pretty soft and gets lost in the mix.
John Kadlecik, who handles many of Jerry’s guitar parts, has a decent, if not generic, voice and is probably the best singer of the bunch. Kadlecik does a good job on the Jerry guitar runs, playing in his style but not mimicking him.
In the end, I was happy I went, and I might even go again. Is it the same experience it was 30 years ago? No, and it can’t be. I’m older, they’re older. Times have changed. But if you go with realistic expectations, it is still great fun.
It’s nice to know the music never stopped.
Furthur, Bank of America Pavilion, July 17, 2013
Set 1 : Passenger /Crazy Fingers/ I Need a Miracle/Wang Dang Doodle /Mississippi Half Step/ Let It Ride (Ryan Adams cover)/Sugaree//Set 2 : Weather Report Suite /He’s Gone /New Speedway Boogie/Uncle John’s Band/Black Peter Not Fade Away-> Going Down the Road Feeling Bad-> Not Fade Away//Encore: Ripple
(Reprinted from my Modern Acoustic blog)