Furthur is evidently taking itself seriously. After the April-May Dead tour, Weir expressed his feeling that they needed to keep this up, and not go to sleep in between tours. The drummers, it turned out, would not be on board. Bill Kreutzmann, after fifteen years of resistance (at the first post-Jerry band meeting, he told the group he was not interested in going on with the Grateful Dead), officially called it quits even before his last TD gig at Rothbury. He plays with whoever he wants, whenever he wants: he has his trio, and does low-key pick-up shows like the one in Manhattan with Mike Gordon and Scott Murawski, or the “Tropical Jam” on New Year’s day in Kauai (more on that in my next post)… Mickey, meanwhile, went back to his myriad projects. Since June, he was featured on the History Channel’s Universe series, won the first World Music Grammy, was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, performed with Jimmy Buffet and most of the Global Drum Project at the Walter Cronkite tribute concert and spoke at the Smithsonian, to list a few of the things that made it onto his website. That left Bob and Phil to make a go of it.
Unheard of in the live music business, Furthur has begun a series of “live rehearsals,” which involves inexpensive shows ($25) at very small venues (225 people) with no expectations, giving them a chance to try out new and rehashed material in front of a crowd. There were two before New Year’s, and there are scheduled to be a total of ten in January. So far, no recordings have made it into circulation, but the setlists are available; they have covered a very wide selection from their combined catalogues, from very old GD tunes (Alligator, Next Time You See Me) to Phil and Weir’s respective side-project material (Silvio, Money For Gasoline, No More Do I), plus Ryan Adams’ Magnolia Mountain and Peaceful Valley, and Brent’s Just A Little Light. Fifteen years after the last Grateful Dead show, they are incorporating the music that the community has been living with into something more than a GD-nostalgia trip. It’s about time.
Most of the tunes listed above were brought out after the two New Year’s shows in San Francisco, however, so that the songs played there covered familiar territory (except for a breakout of Pink Floyd’s Time on the 31st). There were few surprises, either in performance or song selection. All the major standards were represented: Scarlet>Fire, Playin’, Eyes, Dark Star, Terrapin, China>Rider, Help>Slip>Frank, St. Stephen>Eleven (sans the William Tell bridge), Truckin’, UJB, Other One and of course Not Fade Away. There was an interesting sandwich of Born Cross-Eyed between Cryptical and The Other One, and a John-led After Midnight to end set two on the 31st.
The band is getting tighter. There is no more aimless noodle-jamming before sets and between songs. Some of the transitions were extremely tight. HC Sunshine>Bertha and Playin>Eyes come to mind (30th), and there was also a very interesting jam at the end of Cryptical, a blend of both Cryptical and the Other One (replacing the traditional drum interlude).
Things have not quite settled yet in the JK department. On one hand, he had some stellar moments. The absolute standout for me was Viola Lee Blues (if there is one song from NYE that you ought to hear, it’s Viola Lee, at least through Verse 2). Kadlecik broke out the old Garcia line for the intro riff, and just tore apart the jam between verses 1 and 2 in that same 60s style. His workout on Slipknot was terrific, and he stood out on the NFA closer. On the other hand, there were some definite rough spots for him on the more complex tunes (King Solomon’s Marbles, Unbroken Chain and the Eleven).
Both Weir and Phil are surprisingly modest in their performances. I didn’t pick out any moments of conflict between the two. Phil’s strength stands out in some of the more extended jams, like Dark Star or Viola Lee, where he leads the band around different grooves and tempos. Weir does less singing than I think he has ever done; six tunes (out of 18) on the first night and ten (out of 25) on the second. Vocal duties are spread out; Phil took a half-dozen tunes, John maybe a dozen, and the rest were either split up among several people or sung in harmony. I find the backup singers to be a good addition to the mix. The GD tradition has never been known for dulcet vocal melodies, Phil’s vocal chords are pushing 70, and Weir’s higher range is shrinking. The two backup singers (relegated to a spot behind the stacks) add a welcome, clear high register. I noticed it most on Truckin: Weir has been having trouble with the second part of the verse for several years, and having some strong vocals up there sustains the energy. It certainly breaks with tradition (Donna notwithstanding), but if they’re going to build something original out of their combined experience, there’s no reason not to shore up the weak spots.
Chimenti continues to add a lot of color and beautiful fills throughout. In his 12-plus years in RatDog and eight with TOO/TD he got a solid handle on the material, but he also has a knack for very sharp, melodic interjections. I wish I could comment on Joe Russo, but I have heard very little of his work and don’t have much of a frame of reference. He seems right on top of things. Jay Lane gets to jump around back there on percussion. I picked out some rain stick, a lot of tambourine, and reinforcement on certain parts and hits, but he hasn’t carved out a specific role yet.
I refuse to rate shows, as a rule. I will say that I thought the first two sets of the 31st were highlights, though neither of them will go down in history. I do think they are putting enough thought and work into Furthur to break out of the mold, and that having two guiding figures and one manager is much less cumbersome, both musically and personally, than the circus that was The Dead. I’m going to continue listening to these guys avidly just because, hey, that’s what I do, but I do think we can expect an interesting evolution here.
Up next: in the spirit of keeping up with all the Joneses, I’m going to write a quick post (much shorter than this) about the Kreutzmann/Kang show on New Year’s day before I do Brent’s album. I also came across a video of Weir and Garcia’s respective solo sets at Wavy Gravy’s birthday bash in ’86, which grabs me more than the ’92 runs I’ve been talking about. Maybe from here on out I’ll stick to announcing one post at a time, seeing as I change my mind every five minutes.