I’ve heard the first five Furthur shows of the current tour, and they have finally got it straight. This is by far the closest thing to the Grateful Dead since 1995, but it also reaches back to a much earlier time in terms of open-mindedness, experimentation and most of all responsiveness. The shows are tight and unconventional, making the experience surprising even for an obsessive Deadhead like myself.
The Grateful Dead catalogue’s evolution necessarily left some worthy songs by the wayside, and in recent Dead incarnations, there have been constraints placed on the catalogue by the committee aspect of decision-making, by the large number of vested interests (read: management), and by the crowd expectations of the large-scale tours The Other Ones and The Dead were putting on. But Furthur is a different beast on many levels.
First, they are not marketed as a continuation of the Grateful Dead, even if to many fans, they are. Second, they are not playing Giants Stadium or Shoreline Amphitheater in front of tens of thousands of fans but rather playing to anywhere from three to thirteen thousand. Third, management is stripped down and there are two clear leaders who are deeply attuned to each other. Finally, the lead guitarist is already completely versed in the material and most importantly the musical vocabulary of the Grateful Dead, unlike Kimock, Mark Karan, Jimmy Herring or Warren Haynes. Both Bob and Phil have noted in recent interviews that Kadlecik’s familiarity was a decisive element.
The result is that Weir and Phil can both go back to old and forgotten material and incorporate their respective solo work. I was glad to see The Race is On and On The Road Again reappear, tunes almost lost since 1980’s Radio City run, along with King Bee and Next Time You See Me, grand old Pigpen staples from the 60s, and even Brent’s Just a Little Light. On the other end of the spectrum, Ryan Adams’ Magnolia Mountain fits beautifully in the repertoire, and even if RatDog’s Money for Gasoline doesn’t quite translate to Furthur, it’s nice to keep that material alive as well.
Another major development is the abandonment of the Grateful Dead setlist formula. Gone are the regular short-tune-first-set or the second-set arc with a long exploratory jam in the second half>ballad>closer. There are no set- or slot-specific tunes: for example, they opened with Born Cross-Eyed>Music and closed with Shakedown on the 5th, they opened with One More Saturday Night on the 6th, did Estimated in the first set and Cumberland in the second on the 8th, etc.
The addition of Sunshine Becker and Zoe Ellis on vocals has been the occasion for more deviation from the GD MO: there are backing vocals present, though unobtrusive, on most songs, generally on refrains. At the same time, they have allowed for the reinforcement of certain key moments, notably big crowd-pleaser lines like “liiiiiiiiife” in Wharf Rat and “Steal your face” in He’s Gone. Though they are not especially featured most of the time, it was nice to hear them take an a-cappella We Bid You Goodnight in Orlando.
Finally, Jeff Chimenti, longtime veteran, is becoming an absolutely integral part of the band. Relegated to coloring the music, plus an occasional solo, for years, he now takes almost as many solo leads as Kadlecik. Among other examples, he got three rounds on Deep Elum in Orlando and made a big impression on Atlanta’s Promised opener and Casey Jones in Asheville. I don’t think any other keyboardist has been so prominently featured in the GD or any GD-related project, except Hornsby in the Other Ones. He knows the material as well as Kadlecik and has a boogie-woogie inclination, which, coupled with his general modesty, makes for some very interesting jams.
And yet somehow, with all this reinvention, this band’s sound is incredibly close to the energy and responsiveness of the late 60s and early 70s. The second set in Atlanta is a stellar example: the Cassidy>Mountains of the Moon>Death Don’t Have No Mercy sequence was outstanding. The fact of having only one drummer (Jay’s percussion is not a rhythmic anchor) makes it easy to switch gears, and Phil and Bob’s leadership provides direction. I have a dozen tunes with big check marks in my notes, but Asheville’s Unbroken Chain (especially JK’s epic lead at the end) and Orlando’s After Midnight stand out (despite the latter’s slightly confused intro). That’s not to say everything’s perfect. There is the odd meltdown here and there (one on the 6th and another on the 12th) and Weir forgets a verse every now and again, as usual, but overall, this first run is the most consistently high-quality series of shows I have heard in a long time. (I did hear the first set of the 12th as well, that one is a bit lackluster).
I don’t want to rave too much, but this is a tight band with a diverse repertoire, and it deserves attention.
On a completely unrelated note: I want to propose a new item for setlist notation. In writing setlists, most people more or less follow the Deadbase practice of labeling as “>” any two songs with less than a few seconds between them. I think that there is a relevant difference between instances when the band transitions musically from one tune to another (Scarlet>Fire or China>Rider), and when they end one song and immediately start another. I use “.>” in my notes for the latter instance, and I humbly propose we put that into general use.
Up next: I’m following the whole Furthur tour, so there will be another post or two on that, probably a bit more technical than this one: song structures, effects etc.