This year’s Futhur Festival (May 28-30) was only the third of its kind, surprising in light of the fact that several second- and third-generation jam bands have been doing it regularly for years. Despite two years of the traveling Furthur Festival (little relation) and the multi-band Terrapin Station and Comes A Time gatherings, it is the first time a single Dead-related band has set up a festival of its own. While they could have undoubtedly drawn a respectable crowd on their own, they invited a half-dozen lesser-known bands to fill out the schedule, though Phil Lesh felt it was necessary to encourage the crowd to go see these bands (including his son’s), after the erstwhile “soundcheck” on the first night.
A controversial decision a few months ago saw them announcing the setlists for this festival ahead of time: the six official sets would each comprise one of their albums. Phil’s band had done this once before in May of ‘08 (though without announcing it in advance), and those shows had included some of the same albums. The reactions to this announcement had been rather befuddled; why do those again, and above all, why on earth advertise it so far in advance? This reviewer had found it strange to take away the element of surprise, a part of the atmosphere at Dead and Dead-family shows. As things got closer, however there was some excitement at the idea of hearing certain songs, particularly those that were rarely, if ever, part of the catalogue. Besides, it would have become immediately evident what they were up to anyway: it took less than an hour for people to figure it out when Phil and Friends did it two years ago.
Furthur’s current lineup has changed slightly, with the departure of Jay Lane on percussion and the replacement of background vocalist Zoe Ellis by Bay area alum Jeff Pehrson, but the sound is almost indistinguishable. Lane’s contribution had been somewhat superfluous, consisting more of embellishments than structural elements, and having an alto or a tenor voice in the background harmonies makes little difference. The band had continued their rehearsals, both private and “live,” in the run-up to the festival and they are improving noticeably. While some of the more esoteric material had an feeling of recital, the stuff that is well entrenched in the band-members’ respective solo catalogues hit some high peaks.
On the first night of the festival, the band played a two-and-a-half-hour set of popular material that would not feature in the headline shows, including the Eleven, with the original vocal arrangements, Eyes, Dark Star, Scarlet>Fire and Playin’ in the Band. The show was solid with at least one standout passage at the end of Unbroken Chain, a showcase for both Chimenti and John Kadlecik.
Two things became apparent that first night. First was the fluidity and responsiveness of Joe Russo. It was previously hard to discern just what he was doing, since he blended with Lane’s sound, but he is a very versatile player with a real facility in switching grooves and tempos in mid-swing. His ability to lockstep with Phil is reminiscent of John Molo, no small feat considering the disparity in their experience, but he’s more unconventional, peppering rim-shots and taps and rattles throughout.
The other revelation (if it can be called that) is that Phil is unquestionably the band’s director. It first became apparent when, at the reprise of Dark Star, Weir moved beautifully and organically into the Dark Star rhythm, setting the foundation for a jam on the main theme: Phil completely overrode it with his introduction to the piece’s “head” section. On the second night, Weir sang Friend of the Devil and included Phil’s verse (“You can borrow from the devil/ you can borrow from your friend/…”), which closed the song; after the last chord hit, Phil inexplicably felt it necessary to sing that verse again himself. Most tellingly, however, throughout the weekend, it was always Phil talking through the stage monitors between songs, as opposed to Weir or anyone else.
The six sets that comprised the official festival were, by and large, excellent, the first night being the stronger of the two. They covered each album in order, performing the modern versions of the songs: they omitted certain thematic passages, like the “Faster we go…” and “Quadlibet…” sections of The Other One, or the modulation at the end of Dancin’ In The Streets. Though it might have been an interesting exercise to perform everything just as it was on the record, learning it would have been unduly time-consuming and frankly pedantic.
The oddball material on the third night did come off a little stiff: Blues for Allah’s B-side had been performed exactly once and it was clear they were not completely comfortable with it. Aoxomoxoa’s Rosemary was a rare one (Phil sang it this time), and it is questionable whether “What’s Become of the Baby?” was ever performed at all. The lyrics, shared by Phil and Theresa Williams, were only slightly less indecipherable than on the record. Nonetheless, it was gratifying to relive those strange moments of the Grateful Dead’s catalogue in a live and modern setting, nothing’s wrong with a little nod to history and a touch of nostalgia.
Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams made liberal appearances throughout the weekend. Larry played a lot of fiddle, most notably on Brokedown Palace and Dupree’s Diamond Blues. The latter bears special mention as one the best songs of the festival: high energy and featuring stellar solos by all involved, it peaked out with a round of frankly hair-raising exchanges between Campbell, Kadlecik and Chimenti. Campbell played guitar as well on select songs: his contribution to Cumberland Blues was fantastic (even if everyone got a little carried away), I can’t think of anyone who can do that fast country stuff better than him.
Campbell’s wife Theresa Williams handled some important leads: ‘Till The Morning Comes, for one, which was originally sung in harmony by the boys in the band. Sunrise was a Donna Jean tune for Rex Jackson which definitely needed a female voice, and she handled that as well. Attics was another standout of the weekend. It was rather rarely performed by the Grateful Dead, and though it was in RatDog’s repertoire (mostly a-cappella), they never did it justice. The rendition led by Williams on the second night was an absolute gem, with beautiful, tightly orchestrated three- and four-part harmonies. It may have been the all-time best performance of the song.
A few more standouts worthy of mention for Kadlecik’s contributions: Easy Wind, Born Cross-Eyed, Help On the Way, Music (he closed it out with a monstrous lead), and Dancin’ In The streets. There was some confusion at the outset of the latter as to whether it would be in the disco-Dead or original style. However, his solo was straight out of the late-70s disco versions, both in the effect he was using (I’ve noted before how he seems to have all the exact same effects at Garcia), and the language of the riffs.
Finally, it should be mentioned that they premiered a new song by Robert Hunter known as Muli Guli, with a chord progression reminiscent of Pride of Cucamonga. It later appeared during the live rehearsal shows that followed the festival, joining Welcome To The Dance in a new batch of songs for the catalogue, with hopefully more to come. Further currently has 26 shows slated through September 25th. They will have played 79 shows since the previous September, an annual total that outstrips Phil’s most prolific year and rivals the Grateful Dead’s schedule anytime after 1970. The wheel is turning and, apparently, you can’t slow it down.
Up Next: I was pleasantly surprised by 7 Walkers, the Kreutzmann/Papa Mali band with Matt Hubbard and whatever bass player they can get a hold of. I’m going to listen to a few more shows and give you all a rundown.