Well, I’m thoroughly behind schedule; I’ve gotten through Utica, but eight shows in two weeks is below average. I promise to get through Portland sometime before May. In the meantime, the tour has rolled on almost as well as the first series I reviewed in Vol. 1. I mentioned then that the first set of the Feb 12th show was lackluster, and set two also proved under par. In Utica (20th), the first set was well-executed, high energy, and included a RatDog-style reggae passage in Dear Prudence (the second of the tour, after Amherst’s Knockin’ encore), and yet the second set ended disappointingly with an awkward Touch and We Bid You Goodnight. Other than those two exceptions, however, shows have remained consistently good. This will go down in my book as one of the best tours I can remember. While I try not to read reviews until after I’ve heard the show, comments here and there (mostly on etree) lead me to believe most people are pretty happy as well.
I mentioned last time that the GD setlist form was gone, but what has remained is the post-Dead tradition of having Phil lead the way through the second set with transition jams. It’s worth pointing out at this point that what we’ve all been referring to as “jams” are not so in the strictest sense of the word. If Phil has developed a particular skill since the GD days, it’s his ability to create careful and intentional transitional passages. While these take the form of successive vamps and therefore sound like jams, Phil is talking the band through changes in chords and tempo to get from one tune to another. I really don’t know what to call that sort of thing, but I think it’s worth paying attention to.
Though he is indisputably in charge when it comes to these jams, Phil doesn’t stand out much in the songs themselves like he did with P&F. That tendency, when he played with The Dead, could be a source of conflict. Recently, he has settled into a more musically equitable position within the band (though he stood out superbly on Utica’s Satisfaction). In contrast, he sings more, and is more vocal between tunes and sets. He now sings all of Eyes of the World, for instance, instead of just the “redeemer” verse like in recent years. He also has taken Franklin’s Tower, Peggy-O, Truckin’ and Bird Song (in addition to the usual Unbroken Chain, Box etc). These don’t add up to more that a song or two per show but it’s more than he has sung in the past. He and Bob banter more. While “We’ll be back in just a little bit.” used to be exclusive Bob territory, Phil now usually chimes in with something like “We’ll come back if you come back” or something to that effect. The overall effect is that they come across more as sharing leadership of the band. His Donor Rap is a bit more elaborate too. In recognition of the fact that they are playing a lot of new venues, he’s been saying things like “We’ve never been here/we like it here/we’ll be back/…” The rap itself now often opens with something acknowledging that most of the audience has heard this before (it had been ten years, after all).
(I also noticed that for the first few weeks, he sounded tired and the Donor Rap was a bit cursory. Weir noted in a recent interview that Phil has days where he’s slower than others, and Phil mentioned on a few occasions, during the Nokia runs in ’07 and ’08, that bouncing around on a bus was no longer his idea of a good time. I’m surprised that at his age he has the energy for a tour of this length and geographic breadth).
Weir, meanwhile, has vastly expanded his rap catalogue (rap in the Pigpen sense). He has come up with various ideas for Lost Sailor, Good Lovin’, Midnight Hour, Hard to Handle, Lovelight and Caution. This constitutes a departure from anything in recent years. One standount was from Good Lovin’ at Cornell. It starts out with his “Who needs it?” thing and goes from there. On this occasion, he rapped his way through a whole progression and opened a vamp: “and now we’re gonna stay on the One”, continuing “and now we’re gonna take it for a little walk in the woods,” which led into a very cool one-chord jam. Returning to the main theme, he quipped: “And now back to my original question: Who needs it?” This had never been done before and it was a treat to listen to. I know he doesn’t come up with these on the fly, meaning that he has spent a fair amount of time offstage working on these little interludes; they serve the overall early-Dead vibe that Furthur has been resurrecting.
I have tried to pick out Jay Lane’s role since the tour began, which is not easy since he’s not particularly prominent in the mix and his sound overlaps with Joe Russo’s. As far as I can make out, he sticks largely to cymbals and bongos while in the meat of the tunes. However the most distinctive sounds are those of his rain-stick and his shell-shaker. There is a time and place for that stuff but I have to mention the Cornell show when he broke out that damn shaker on three different tunes in a row. I guess you have to see what works. In all probability, it just happens to come through louder than intended since it’s a hold-up-to-the-mic thing rather than one with a permanent, leveled and EQd mic on it. He does like that rain stick though.
There have been a few one-off sound/equipment issues: Weir’s high end was feeding back in New Hampshire, there was some interference over Kadlecik’s lead in Utica, there was a grounding problem on the 14th and various technical glitches in PA on the 15th gave Weir an opportunity to screw up his “A duck walks into a bar” joke. In all fairness, it’s not a terrible joke, he just flubbed the punchline both times he told it. He said he'd work on it.
I want to discuss a few songs. First, Corinna, which for my money was the Grateful Dead’s all-time worst tune, though one of RatDog’s most fun. I’ve only heard one rendition and it came off pretty well. JK mostly played the GD/Garcia lines on it (particularly that introductory octave-slide), but the musical arrangement is RatDog’s: Mickey’s heavy rhythm part doesn’t lumber the tune down and there are more changes. I also though Ashes and Glass grew a nice new pair of legs, I’m looking forward to further performances. Hurricane is a great song that has evolved a bit and really came together in Buffalo. There is a space between verses that really wants to be filled, but they elected to save the trademark guitar lead for the very end, leaving the first part of the song a bit flat. In Buffalo, Weir began to turn up a bit and play fills in that space. They don’t function as solos but add tremendously. JK also finally has a solid handle on all the vocals, so that the tune is tighter, more complete. Finally, King Solomon’s Marbles struggled in its first few performances, mainly because it’s long, ridiculously complicated, and led by the guitar. Kadlecik has not gotten a solid enough handle on the progression and timing to keep the whole thing together, so in Amherst on the 19th, Chimenti and JK split lead duties. It changes the overall vibe a little but the song hold together better.
So the tour is running along well, things are evolving nicely. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops, especially with the RD tunes. A summer tour has been announced, counting 11 dates so far; I’m curious to see if they keep it short, leaving time for a RatDog tour as well (they’ve done two summer tours for the past few years). By the way, here’s a nice long CNBC/Weir interview worth checking out, recorded when they were at Radio City. Among other standard fare, he mentions how they’re trying to build an audience for Furthur (which seems unnecessary, somehow), and they go into the oddly high number of high-ranking DeadHead politicians.
Next: I have 10 shows to go, plus Phil’s birthday benefit (“Furthur and Friends”). With any luck I’ll have a final post up by the 18th. Cheers.