Furthur has settled into a groove of consistently solid performances this summer. Eighteen shows in the Northeast between June 25th and July 30th have yielded half a dozen new songs, most original; a fresh, non-formulaic setlist pattern; greatly improved vocal arrangements and very few meltdowns. And someone may or may not have slipped something in Weir’s drink at the Nokia Theater on July 28th.
Furthur’s catalogue for 2010 numbers 189 songs, more than the maximum for the Grateful Dead in any year (150 songs in 1987 including all the Dylan material) and even RatDog, who topped out in 2007 at 180. They’ve added a number of originals though they seem to have dropped Welcome to the Dance, which has not been played since February. Muli Guli first appeared at the festival in California and three more times since; Colors Of the Rain was first performed on June 30th and was the most frequent of this tour’s new songs (four performances); and Seven Hills of Gold was broken out in early July. Each of them is credited to “Furthur;” they trade verses on Muli, Phil sings Colors, and Bob handles Hills. Celebration is not a new song, but it had only ever been played by Phil & Friends prior to three performances in July. Aside from that, Traffic’s Feelin’ Alright appeared twice, though I suspect it won’t be a regular part of the catalogue, like Ryan Adams’ Bartering Lines, performed once in New York. I Fought The Law had not been done in recent memory but made a surprise appearance in early June.
Parenthetically, they’ve also started performing the other parts of Terrapin Station, which has a long and complicated history. Robert Hunter wrote pages of lyrics for different parts of an epic-poem-style Terrapin Station suite (see Box of Rain – Penguin Books 1990), most of which have never been performed. In 1977, the Grateful Dead recorded a musical suite including certain parts on the B-side of the eponymous album: Lady With A Fan>Terrapin Station>Terrapin>Terrapin Transit>At A Siding>Terrapin Flyer>Refrain. It may be that some sections were arbitrary cuts for royalty purposes. The At A Siding section was played live once in 1977 without lyrics and is labeled The Alhambra on the tapes that circulate but aside from that, the song was always limited to the first Lady/Terrapin diptych. In August 2002, RatDog started performing the whole suite, but it was not until the Furthur Festival that this was picked up by anyone else. Since then, Furthur have performed At A Siding>Terrapin Flyer>Refrain (or Terrapin Reprise) five times. The suite runs about twenty-five minutes, making it a bit unwieldy, but they have also played the first diptych and the second half separately.
Pardon the digression.
The summer tour kicked off in Brooklyn, and though reviews were generally very positive, I couldn’t help but notice something that persisted through the first half of the tour at least: Weir’s volume. His level has always been rather low, and the Weirheads out there, myself included, often wish he would turn up. This is only advisable up to a point. Often times during the tour his volume was the loudest on the stage. Now, insofar as he and Phil are the backbone of the group, he ought to be prominent in the mix, but his tone and the structure of the music make too much Weir detrimental. First of all, he often seems to play at the very highest limits of the human auditory spectrum, a sound bordering on screechy, which even his guitar tech admits sometimes needs to be rolled off. In the context of the Grateful Dead’s sound, with a pretty full tonal range, the high end can be the only place to find some room to play. However, if he is too loud, it can obliterate the upper midrange and the high end distracts from everything else. Secondly, the Garcia element of the Dead’s music involves a consistent, flowing lead sound to tie the other rhythms together. Weir has a way of nudging a groove along by picking moments to interject: if he is playing at lead volume, there’s nothing to nudge and it breaks up the flow.
He was pretty intentional in his volume level, as I recall, at times turning up further if Kadlecik stepped up. I imagine he’s either working on developing a way to lead with his guitar voicing, or trying to carve out a greater directive presence. I personally don’t think he can lead with guitar alone unless he plays a straighter rhythm. However, he definitely came down as the tour went along, so whatever he was going for, he seems to have found it.
Since Furthur started up about a year ago, there has been some experimentation with vocal arrangements. Specifically, Weir and Kadlecik are trading verses (Tennessee Jed), couplets (Half-Step) and in some cases even lines within a verse (Touch of Grey). When this first started, it felt disorganized and unnecessary but they have gotten quite good at it, so that it’s not that noticeable any more (Touch in Ottawa is a case in point). Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Becker are still at times an integral part of the vocals, as opposed to embellishments or chorus: The Eleven is a good example, with substantially rearranged vocals, and Pink Floyd’s Time relies heavily on their contribution, though Phil sings as well. The a-cappella tunes like Attics and We Bid You Goodnight could not happen without them.
Some songs are noticeably being tweaked. Hard to Handle (7.8) jumps right out. There is a funky new introduction, and long centerpiece jam, and the end goes into a vamp with some Weir vocal ad-libs. Shakedown Street’s “shake it down” vocal vamp and modulation was not done the same way twice this tour. Once they did a long a-cappella vamp before the shift, once they did it like RatDog: twice around on the vocal line into the change; and there was also an occasion on which they added a vamp before the end of the modulation. It’ll be interesting to see what they settle on. Ashes and Glass has a new chord progression towards the middle at “Nothing left to say,” and Weir added some words at the top of the Jack Straw jam in Philadelphia. While on the subject of Weir’s singing, I’d like to point out two tracks in particular which showcase the roar he can still muster despite his age and reputation. Admitting that he has off nights on which he sounds a bit weak, check out Satisfaction in Philly (7.10) and Death Don’t Have No Mercy at the Nokia (7.29). I’ve never heard him belt one out quite like that last one.
Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti continues to be in top form though he takes fewer leads than he did last tour (Weir takes more). Unbroken Chain (their best song, for my money) relies most heavily on JC’s contribution but he takes relatively frequent solos and almost always has something interesting to say. Note that he has a bit more freedom to come up with something original than Kadlecik, who tends to be confined to the Garcia mood for given sections. Joe Russo is solid as always. I noticed a few things: first, he’s the only guy on stage who moves much. Those of you who saw that viral video of the wedding band drummer twirling sticks and pumping his arms will have an idea of what Russo is doing, albeit on a lower scale. It’s not too showy but it is noticeable compared to the generally staid attitude of the front-line guys. Second, he’s very tight. There are numerous transitions with Furthur (the “.>” stop-go kind, as opposed to the China>Rider type) and he never misses a beat, which is something that Bill and Mickey never quite got the hang of. His facility with fills is most noticeable on the latter Terrapin sections and on Slipknot, both of which have drum-fill portions that he always nails.
To finish up, I’d like to throw in two cents about the Weir incident at Nokia on July 28th. The by-now-familiar video of El Paso shows Weir a little unsteady on his feet, shaking his head, and completely unable to remember the words to a song he’s been singing for 40 years. Trouble started during the previous tune, Brown-Eyed Women, in which he flubbed the end verse. There were some more blank moments in the second set, though not as painful as the 5-minute El Paso vamp (Music and Cassidy). Some say he was drunk, others say he was dosed, and Phil implied the latter by way of an introduction on the following night (detractors argue that it could be a plausible lie to cover for him). I know that Weir has had issues with drinking, though not in any detail. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine that a career musician would do something quite so unprofessional. For a guy whose livelihood is so squarely and intentionally based in performance, it doesn’t seem logical to get drunk before a show. Additionally, he didn’t appear impaired in any way on the Shakedown opener, nor did he sound stumbling-around-drunk on any of the other tunes he sang. Being dosed before the show and thrown for a loop at the onset of the trip a few songs in seems to fit the performance. I have no inside info, no expertise on the psychotropics going around, but I don’t think he was drinking.
Anywho, that’s it for this installment. There is a lot I didn’t cover (setlists, for example), favorite shows (I’ve heard Herniker a lot, but I’d say Nokia 7.29), etc., but this seems quite long enough. Thank you for indulging me.
Up next: I heard a few Rhythm Devils shows from this past tour. I’ll have a short post on those within a few days.