Article By Chris Baker
I was 15 years old the last time I saw Phil Lesh and Bob Weir take the stage together. My father took me to an all-day festival at the Vernon Downs Speedway in upstate New York. The Dead (as they were called at that time) and Willie Nelson were the headliners for the evening and the opening act was a little-known local band called moe. I was too young to have seen Jerry & co. play together, so this was the first Dead show I had ever experienced. It changed my life forever.
Ten years later and just more than ten miles down the road from my first Dead experience, I was lucky enough to be a part of the latest incarnation of living Dead members: Furthur. Joining me on the trip to Utica, NY were two seasoned veterans of the Grateful Dead scene who, between them, have seen close to 200 Dead shows. Both now have families and careers but still never miss an opportunity for a party with members of one of the greatest bands of all time. These guys have been seeing shows since long before my embryonic days, so despite a diverse portfolio of concerts under my belt, I was the rookie of the group.
We met up in Syracuse and made the trip east to the Utica Memorial Auditorium, which was made famous on the local jam band circuit when Trey blew the roof off the place back in ‘05. Literally. As he cranked through his second set, chunks of the ceiling began raining down on the sold-out crowd, prompting officials to end the show before he was quite finished. Trey, however, rewarded Utica fans the following year when he returned to the city (at a different venue) and brought along his good friends Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman for a nearly-complete Phish reunion.
But I digress. We arrived at the Auditorium in time to get a spot about fifteen feet from the stage at the center of the floor with the sold-out crowd of roughly 6,000 packed in behind us as the 7:00 ticket time crept nearer. At around 7:15, Furthur took the stage. This newest concoction of Dead survivors features Phil and Bob at the helm with Dark Star Orchestra guitarist John Kadlecik filling in for Mr. Garcia on lead guitar and vocals. RatDog members Jeff Chimenti and Jay Lane join the group on keyboards and percussion, respectively, and Joe Russo of Benevento/Russo Duo provides the backbone on drums. Backing up the team of talented gentleman are the lovely voices of Zoe Ellis and Sunshine Garcia Becker (no relation).
Not yet having seen this band, I wondered which type of Dead band they would be. Would they be reminiscent of the Kimock days of Phil & Friends with a sound similar to the old days? Would it be a Jackie-Greene-esque show, with a rocking sound and some harmonica tunes? Considering the dense population of former RatDog members on the stage, I presumed we would be treated to the jazzier stylings characteristic of Bobby’s group.
Kadlecik kicked things off with “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, not exactly a thrilling opener, but good enough to get the crowd moving. They churned right along into “Promised Land” from there, which got the tempo up and gave Kadlecik a chance to stretch his fingers out a bit on the guitar. He really got cooking as the band followed their somewhat slow start with a rockin’ version of “Cumberland Blues”, and from there, the set took off.
They picked up more steam with “Ramble on Rose (one of my personal favorites)”, which was succeeded by “Foolish Heart” and a gradual transition into “Reuben and Cherise”, a Phil favorite that was rarely seen by the original band. I’d never seen the song performed before Saturday and I took an immediate liking to it.
The set closed out with a pair of covers, starting with a RatDog favorite“Dear Prudence”. I typically enjoy Beatles’ covers more than the originals and this song was no exception. Bob and John alternated verses on vocals and the ladies complemented the chorus beautifully. The crowd roared as the song came to a quiet close and before we even had time to catch our collective breath, Bob started banging out the opening riff of the Stones’ “Satisfaction”. Kadlecik and Weir built off each other on overlapping guitar licks as Chimenti pounded away on boards. The band cranked through the song like a true rock n roll powerhouse and quickly had the entire arena dancing and cheering, “I CAN’T GET NO… SATISFACTION!”
The lights came on for the set break, and I made the rookie mistake of going for a beer and a leak while my more experienced companions safeguarded our spot. The crowd overwhelmed the auditorium and I spent about 40 minutes waiting in different lines. No worries, however, because Deadheads are some of the friendliest people in the world, which means I spent my line-time cracking jokes and shooting the breeze with new friends made along the way.
The other reason I didn’t mind the waiting was that the set break lasted almost an hour. I returned to our spot on the floor to find that my friends had made a new friend as well. Sort of. His name was Everett, and I returned to find him explaining to my buddies that he knew they were cops and he wouldn’t blow their cover as long as they didn’t bust him. We did our best to calm his fears, but he was clearly tweaking and our 5-0 presence apparently wasn’t helping. We left him alone and waited for the second set to begin.
Almost an hour after they left the stage, the band returned, Bob now playing a hot pink Stratocaster-style axe. The set opened with “China Cat Sunflower” and progressed right into “The Wheel”. Bob and Phil harmonized together and shared lead vocals on the song for the first and last time during the night. They steamed on like a headlight on a northbound train into “I Know You Rider” and closed the half hour series with “Magnolia Mountain”. Phil took over after that as the band played “Unbroken Chain”, a popular Phil & Friends tune.
“Unbroken Chain” progressed into “Comes A Time”, not a favorite of mine, but it was followed closely by “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad”, which really gave Kadlecik a chance to show off what he can do with a guitar. They teased a few tunes after that and got us all guessing what they would close the set with, as the second set was already pushing an hour and a half. With a glance from Phil the band broke into “Touch of Grey”, much to the delight of the Deadhead crowd. Just as I thought the set was coming to an end, the group broke into an impromptu rendition of “We Bid You Goodnight” before exiting the stage.
The group retook the stage almost immediately as we all made our appreciation heard. They capped off the night with “One More Saturday Night”, a fitting song for a Saturday show in February. The buzz in the arena was all positive as the lights flickered on and the crowd filed out into the streets. My friends and I made our way to the Denny’s down the road for some nighttime moon over hammies. The diner flooded with other fans whom had the same idea as us, and it was probably the quietest after-party I’ve ever attended.
According to my friend who’s seen the real thing dozens upon dozens of times, this new band is the most authentic-sounding reincarnation thus far. I’d have to agree that they’re the best ensemble combination I’ve seen in my 10+ years of shows. Not only do they have two of the original members, John Kadlecik is perhaps the closest thing to Jerry I’ve ever seen, and I hope I’ll have an opportunity to see the group again.