Furthur’s latest tour, an eleven-date run between November 8th and 21st, took them through the West-North-Central and North-East regions. The Grateful Dead made a similar run every summer after 1982 (barring ’86), but it was Furthur’s first time in Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota or Missouri. (Iowa is a particularly rare stop: the GD played there 7 times, the last being in ’84. RatDog had been through seven times as well, and Phil exactly once.) The recent tour rounds out all of the major US markets except the South-Central region. I’ll be curious to see if they make it down to Alabama, Kentucky or Texas, all regular - if infrequent - GD stops.
This tour saw them add another few tunes to the repertoire, notably George Harrison’s Any Road. Kadlecik presumably brought that one in: none of the GD have ever performed it, but it’s in JK’s solo catalogue. It came up twice. Aside from that, two sets of lyrics were resurrected from the depths of the Dead catalogue. Spoonful made an appearance in Baltimore on the 17th, sandwiched within Smokestack Lightning. The songs are essentially the same: Weir sang the lyrics but the tune never changed (the same applies Women Are Smarter, Aiko Aiko and Day-O; see 7/6 and 12/31/87). They also resurrected Brent’s Hey Jude reprise at the end of Dear Mr. Fantasy, also in Baltimore. Again, the chord structure doesn’t change: Kadlecik sang the Fantasy lines while the others sang Hey Jude. Finally, the crowd at Madison Square Garden was treated to Furthur’s first performance of Weather Report Prelude>Part 1. The catalogue now stands at an unheard-of 197 tunes (though there is room for debate on the afore-mentioned Spoonful/Hey Jude front, or over how to count the Weather Report or Terrapin sections)
This tour marked a bit of a turning point for the band. First of all, there was an early element of “auto-pilot” reminiscent of Dead tours. The band is getting fully comfortable with each other and the material is well ingrained, which means that they can perform by the book relatively easily. Thus, the first couple shows were tight but conservative. There were also a few songs sprinkled throughout the tour with sloppy intros or iffy changes; a corollary, no doubt, of having such a large repertoire. The second thing was more pronounced arc to the tour compared to the more even quality of the last two outings. There was a high-water mark in Cincinnati, about halfway through, followed by a lull that did not really swing back up until MSG. It wasn’t a deep trough, but noticeable.
Phil’s comments in Chicago reveal something about the band’s more staid philosophy these days. The 11/12 show was, to my ears, surprisingly experimental (just as I had finished telling someone that I thought they were being too conservative…). When Phil came up for his Donor Rap, he thanked the crowd for indulging “interesting asides,” and sorta-kinda apologized for what “some might call … noodling.” In fairness, there were some loose moments in Dark Star and Viola Lee, but it was not so long ago that Phil was talking about how much he loved meltdown moments when anything can happen (Bass Player magazine, May ’09). Perhaps Phil has suddenly changed, but Weir has always run a real tight ship, and maybe Phil is coming around to the idea.
Speaking of Weir: the man has finally (finally!) developed the ability to power through a verse when he doesn’t remember the first line. For years, when he did not have the whole thing in his head, he would just not sing, shaking his head with a grin while the crowd inevitably cheered. Recently it’s been getting almost worrisome. Everybody forgets lyrics, but the solution is to sing whatever lyric comes into your head until you get the rest right. On one hand, the songsmith in Weir seems to demand that he tell the story correctly (In the RD days, he at least once stopped a tune altogether to start the verses over in order); on the other, since he steps to the mic, everybody notices when he doesn’t have it right and it interrupts the song (and gets him bad press in the bargain). Anyhow, this tour marked the first time I’ve noticed him singing whatever line comes up and catching himself after. And I can’t imagine that anyone walked out of the Baltimore show complaining that the third verse of Black-Throated Wind didn’t quite make sense. Overall, July’s Nokia show notwithstanding, Weir’s memory is much more reliable these days. There were as few flubs from Weir as from Kadlecik.
After thirteen years on the bus, Jeff Chimenti is the most consistently original member of the band. He took up piano at age 4 and he studied classical music for about ten years. He switched to jazz in high school and kept at it for another ten, eventually touring with Dave Ellis. That connection brought him to RatDog in 1997, and on to the Other Ones/The Dead starting in ‘02. (He has also played variously with Pete Escovedo, Dave MacNab, Les Claypool, and String Cheese) I’ve previously mentioned his solidity in the context of Unbroken Chain, Big River etc., but as a general rule, perhaps due to his broad background, his contributions are surprisingly fresh. Franklin’s Tower in Reading, Money For Gasoline in Baltimore, and the intro piece to Two Djinn at MSG are good examples. He had ample time to practice the latter piece over the ten-plus years it was in the RatDog catalogue, but he never really settles on a particular feel the way most players will. And he can get a crowd worked up like few others.
Furthur continues to experiment with setlist orders and song pairings. Longtime pair China and Rider are no longer necessarily a pair or even bookends; Viola Lee Blues, which has for over a decade been a sort of mortar-piece that ties most of a set together, was a single tune at MSG on the 21st; Caution and Turn On Your Lovelight appeared in first sets – and not as closers… Songs also continue to get tweaked here and there; Black Peter has a new background vocal arrangement in the jam segment, The Music Never Stopped now ends on a vocal line, Colors Of The Rain seems to change every performance, Dear Prudence has a new chord in the chorus, they’re reworking Hard to Handle… The new transition (>!, where the next tune starts on the 4th beat of the previous one) made a half-dozen appearances; and the Phil-led transitional jams are working better and better… Old dogs, new tricks.
The Reading show and the second MSG show were some of the best, in my opinion. A few other highlights: check out Big Bad Blues and Liberty in Ames, IA, Eyes in St. Louis, Dear Prudence in Chicago and Hard To Handle>Dear Mr. Fantasy in Baltimore. I can’t really link any of the transition jams, since they’re neither tracked nor labeled, but they’re worth keeping an ear out for.
Going forward, Phil and Weir are hosting the annual Unbroken Chain Foundation fundraiser in mid-December; Furthur will play San Francisco for New Year’s; Weir/Wasserman/Lane (also the Rhythm Devils) are scheduled on Jam Cruise 9 in early January; and Furthur just announced three February shows in Colorado.
Up Next: I’m listening to the Spring ’89 GD tour. It’s long, so it might be a few weeks before you get a post.