Furthur played a nine-date west coast tour in September. They had had a six-week break beforehand (barring a one-off in Golden Gate Park), and are scheduled for another before hitting the Midwest and East Coast in November. They also just announced two shows to wrap up the year in San Francisco, putting this year’s show total at a healthy 82.
September’s outing saw the premiere of three new songs, bringing their songbook to a total of 193 tunes. Two of those songs have their origins in previously written material and feature lyrics by Phil’s son Brian Lesh (with some indirect input from Robert Hunter). The full story appeared in a Jambands.com article, but the broad strokes are as follows. Having heard an outtake from David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name, Brian built on the only lyric (“Gonna let the mountain be my home”) and wrote a song for his own band. His mother Jill thereafter dug up an old set of Hunter lyrics originally intended to complete Crosby’s, upon which Brian and Phil retooled the song to incorporate all the elements. This yielded Furthur’s The Mountain Song, premiered in Oregon on the 17th and played two more times thereafter. I personally like it very much; it has a great thematic suite, like Unbroken Chain, and a lot of energy.
Brian’s second contribution to the songbook comes from Olla Belle Reed’s High On A Mountain, which has a long tradition of interpretations. Phil having reworked the tune himself, it fell to Brian to write the three new verses that complete Furthur’s version, performed in Redmond and at Red Rocks.
Finally, we were treated to one performance of Weir’s Big Bad Blues. This tune was posted, in its embryonic stages, on Weir’s facebook page a while back and sounded pretty simple and generic, with only two verses and a chorus. The performed song was much more interesting; a long, funky blues with three new verses and a nice long jam sandwiched between a very cool new bridge.
There is more funk in the band’s sound these days. There has been an undercurrent at least as far back as the Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band in 2000, but it was seldom developed into actual songs (barring Shakedown and Viola Lee) until now. I noted the Schoolgirl from last tour and now Big Bad Blues. In addition, JC funked up Stagger Lee and Come Together, and On the Road Again got a full treatment.
Another new trick appeared, this time in the transitions. They can segue seamlessly from one tune to the next (>), they can transition with a jam (>jam>), they can end one tune and start the next immediately (.>), and now they’ve come up with a new way which I’m tempted to dub “>!” because it’s inherently surprising. It involves starting the next tune on the ending chord of the previous one: the tune doesn’t resolve, and the 4th beat becomes the 1st of the new bar. They did it at least twice this tour and I hope they do more of it: it keeps everybody on their toes.
Of Furthur’s revamped material, King Solomon’s Marbles deserves some mention. I noted – uncharitably – that Kadlecik had had a little trouble with the form when they first started playing it. It was originally written and recorded during the hiatus, at a time when I think they felt the desire to experiment with some complex arrangements. Consequently, it is a rather dense progression that takes some serious attention and work to get just right. They finally nailed it from start to finish in Santa Barbara on the 20th. The second performance of the tour, on the closing night at Red Rocks, saw them start to really make an original go of it, with Chimenti in particular finding some very original things to say in his solo section. I’m glad to see a substantially new interpretation start to make some headway. The same can be said of the end of Terrapin: while the first two sections have been evolving all along, those seldom-performed sections have moved past the recital phase (for lack of a better term) and into the performance phase.
Now if JK can just get his head all the way around The Eleven…!
A few disjointed notes: Kadlecik tweaked the lyrics to Deep Elem (“Have your 20 dollars ready,” “bandits in Debellum”); the Other One has a “coming around” closing tag; Phil found a new introductory line to Colors of the Rain; the tricky vocal arrangement to Born Cross-Eyed has been settled, and China Cat and Rider seem to have been separated, performed at a week’s interval, though with the transition jam still serving as outro and into respectively.
Donor Rap: the tour opened with two show in Oregon, which Phil dedicated to Macalan (sp?) in the first real departure from his usual Donor Rap. Macalan was an Oregonian who recently donated his organs, and Phil mentioned him at both shows. It has been eleven and a half years since he’s been doing the Donor Rap and recently he’s been acknowledging that most of the audience has heard it before, and that many of them are already organ donors. There are only so many ways to say that playing at all is bittersweet moment, and that we should all emulate Cody’s courage, nobility and generosity of spirit; this was the first time that he has tried to make it immediately relevant. Parenthetically, Phil has been much more genial in his donor raps this tour than he was over the summer: a word about the rain and the cold in the first few nights, a nod to the renovations at the venue in Vegas, and he repeated how he absolutely loves playing at Red Rocks.
In closing, I’d like to say something that will likely be extremely unpopular: in some ways, Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead. Now let me explain before you throw me to the wolves. The Grateful Dead, for all their magic, cultural importance and personal significance to the tens of thousands of people who have grown up with them (myself included), are also plagued, in my opinion, with a certain hagiography. The deification of the band in Deadhead culture tends to obscure their humanity, and precludes a certain type of criticism. Of course we all agree that Garcia was a mess at certain periods, and that the last few years were a painful experience for all involved, but there is always the implicit agreement that there will never be anything that can touch the Grateful Dead. Any and all post-GD incarnations fall into the “used-to-be” column. But let’s look at it the other way: should we write off the ongoing work of the people who created the Grateful Dead to begin with? That would amount to a dismissal of (in this case) Weir and Phil’s contributions. There will never be another Jerry Garcia, just like there will never be another Shakespeare or another Pélé, but there will be other musicians and playwrights and soccer stars who build and expand on their work.
Over thirty years, there was a constant refinement and improvement of the way the Dead played. For all the fun of ’76 (which I’m currently listening to), they were not always tight, nor did the arrangements have the subtlety and texture that they would have later. These aspects continue to evolve. Furthur’s music is driven by forty-five years of development and experience. It is a more professional organization than the GDP ever was: it’s not clogged up with the complications of being the sole support of the extended GD family, it’s less claustrophobic, and in the sense that there is new blood in the band, the music is less inbred. I think the long period of frustration and ill-feelings in the late nineties attests to just how untenable that model had been.
This band is very tight and they work at it, they’re motivated, and they’re disciplined. They have, as a group, demonstrated a willingness to incorporate and develop individual interpretations of the Dead’s material. They’re sober, at least by comparison if not objectively. Phil and Bob have spent fifteen years finding a way to productively renew their body of work. I find the emotional range of the music to be broader, and the thematic progressions to be subtler and more intentional. Which is perfectly logical. Personal preference, naturally, is a different matter.
Jerry Garcia is dead: his body of work is finished and we’ll always have it, but his was a part of a larger musical organism that is still alive and no less interesting.
There. I said it.
Up next: I’m already halfway through the Dead’s 1976 fall tour. I should have a post up in two weeks. Cheers.