FURTHUR Winds Down Their Most Recent Tour with a Stop at North Charleston Coliseum in South Carolina | JamBandsOnline.com

FURTHUR Winds Down Their Most Recent Tour with a Stop at North Charleston Coliseum in South Carolina

Review by James D. McCallister

2 April 2011

Set 1: Playing in the Band>Alabama Getaway, Dire Wolf, Big Bad Blues*, Cumberland Blues, Deep Elem Blues>Magnolia Mountain**>Jack Straw

Set 2: Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance, No More Do I***>Because****>New Potato Caboose>St. Stephen>Spanish Jam>Mountain Song*>Help on the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower

Encore: When I Paint My Masterpiece*****, Revolution****

*Furthur Original   **Ryan Adams cover ***Lesh/Hunter original ****Beatles cover *****Bob Dylan cover

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.

– Thomas Moore

A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.

– Thomas Mann

Furthur is not the Grateful Dead, but it’s been embraced by fans old and new as the torch-carriers of the brand and the vibe. Consisting of iconoclastic rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, 63, and classically-trained bassist Phil Lesh, 71, these pedigreed Garcia sidemen, supplanted by a crack squad of younger musicians, are the most direct link left to the magic and musicianship on which Deadheads once thrived. And, they’re touring their hearts out, from one side of the country to the other. For Dead aficionados, this must be heaven.

In the wake of Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death, various band members formed their own acts, and have teamed up through the years in various iterations designed to emulate the original group — The Other Ones, apt, and the even more aptly named The Dead, a more direct and marketable sop to the original brand — but none of these survived longer than a tour or two, owing, it is said, to ongoing personal difficulties between various founding band members, typical rock star backstage tensions, and, according to rumor, issues such as substance abuse by a key member that nearly caused Lesh to call off the 2004 summer tour halfway through. The Dead would attempt a tour once more, in 2009, but for the most part the Warren Haynes-led ensemble encountered opposition from longstanding Deadheads unhappy with triple-digit ticket prices and what some perceived as more nostalgia act than vibrant and creative musical exploration like we’d come to expect from any conglomeration of these musicians. By some accounts, the end of the tour again found brittle tension and disagreements about money among the four surviving Dead.

Thus — or for additional complicating personal reasons destined to remain opaque and resistant to journalistic speculation — the two authentic Dead drummers, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart, aren’t a part of Furthur; it may be assumed that, as Hart himself once compared the relationship of the band members to a “forty-year marriage,” they now find themselves on the wrong side of an estrangement, if not outright divorce[1].

But perhaps the most controversial element of Furthur, one that divides longtime fans along stratified lines of disagreement, is the inclusion of a literal Garcia imitator in the lead guitarist slot. Native Chicagoan John Kadlecik, 41, had already been a quite-literal interpreter of Garcia’s songbook and style as co-founder of the Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra, which tours performing song-for-song recreations of actual Grateful Dead concerts, going so far as to change its lineup to represent the different eras of the band — one drummer or two, Donna Jean or no Donna Jean[2], Brent Mydland[3] on keys or Pigpen[4] wailing on a forty-minute r&b rave-up. Now that Kadlecik  has moved on to Furthur — like getting called up to the big leagues from a farm team, a success and accomplished farm team, yes, but still the minors — Rob Barraco[5], who played in the most beloved version of Phil Lesh & Friends, and Jeff Mattson[6], both formerly of the famous Long Island band the Zen Tricksters,[7] anchor DSO, themselves getting a taste of bigger success than the Tricksters had ever managed. The circle of Dead goes round and round.

So what’s the issue with Kadlecik , who’s not only capable of channelling Garcia’s licks but also his sweetness and connection with the audience? Authenticity, perhaps. Despite producing a sound and a feel that is very Dead-like, in the years since Garcia’s death the various members have mined the catalogue to their heart’s content, pushing timeworn songs in new and interesting directions; Furthur, despite its name, however, seems designed to do the opposite: recreating the music in a much more familiar frame, with a gentle noodling lead guitar that isn’t just reminiscent of the original bandleader’s sound, it’s a direct imitation on essentially every level. Furthur, then, can be said to be not a huge leap forward in its interpretation of the songbook, but rather existing only as the most highly-pedigreed of the cover bands who seek to breath life — and, it must be noted, ongoing commerce — into the Dead brand. Which some fans, particularly older ones, seem to find distasteful or at the very least, uninteresting.

For younger fans who never to see the “real” Grateful Dead[8], however, Furthur is a chance at the brass ring — to hear the songs performed as they might have been with Garcia at the helm, to get a chance to feel “that magic in the air.” And magic, indeed, is what Furthur seemed to bring to South Carolina on a springtime Saturday night, to which a half-capacity crowd roared its demonstrative approval. As of mid-afternoon a coliseum official reported that only about 5,000 tickets had been sold, but by showtime the 14,000-seat facility, with upper sections curtained off, held a robust and demonstrative crowd who, following the long beautiful afternoon in the bustling and hassle-free lot scene, appeared ready to boogie.

Winding down the tour after a run concentrated in the northeast (including a stint at prestigious Radio City Music Hall), Lesh and Weir brought their band onto the stage and ran through a set of Dead standards and covers[9] with energy and aplomb. From the opening statement of “Playing in the Band” into “Alabama Getaway,” through a new epic Weir original called “Big Bad Blues,” to more classic Dead sandwiched around former Phil Lesh and Friends frontman Ryan Adams’ “Magnolia Mountain” (itself most likely written with the Dead in mind, and a good folksy down-tempo fit for this ensemble), the set crackled with originality and referential renditions of enduring Dead like a ripping “Jack Straw” that shredded the audience with a powerhouse buildup going far beyond almost any late period Grateful Dead rendition. As the lights came up, the crowd buzzed with happiness and anticipation for the meat of any Dead-like show worth its salt: the second set.

Lesh, grooving and grinning from his traditional spot on the left side of the stage — the Phil Zone, as it’s been designated — seemed throughout the first frame to enjoy the energy of a man half his age; as Barraco once confided, Lesh told him that when you get the liver of a 12 year-old girl to replace your worn-out rock star’s shriveled porous lump of brown meat[10], you tend to feel better and younger. Weir, on the other hand, is often the wild card in this ensemble, exhibiting lyric fumbles and the occasional odd behavior such as changing his guitar four times within a single song[11]. On this night, however, both men seemed at the relative top of their 2011 game; Weir in particular has tempered his post-Garcia desire to be the bandleader, to be “the Jerry” of any new Dead-themed ensemble, handing off key vocals on many classic Garcia tunes to his Jerry-like lead guitarist, which is, theoretically, as it should be.

As the second set got underway, Weir did command center stage with his 1980 duo of “Lost Sailor” into “Saint of Circumstance,” a solid set opener of what, in the 80s, had once been considered nonessential, undesirable “modern” Dead material; “Lost Sailor” disappeared in 1986 never to return to the repertoire, though “Saint” stayed in the rotation until the bitter 1995 end. Now, however, fans who might never have seen material like this may revel in its presentation, which is played well and true and good.

The set would go on to include some of the most desirable elements of the catalog, such as another “Saint” in the form of “St. Stephen,” the sacred cow that Garcia’d been unwilling to bring back “because it’s too hard to sing, too many changes,” or so he’d purportedly complained. Between “St. Stephen” and “New Potato Caboose” and “Spanish Jam,” forays into outright psychedelia that surely warmed the heart of any longtime listener, Furthur focused its lens firmly on the towering history of the principal players, both present and absent, while also making room for up-to-the-minute compositions like the majestic singalong “The Mountain Song,” a new classic that’s fresh and fitting and snuggles nicely into the extant catalogue.

By the time of the scorching, uptempo “Help—Slipknot!—Franklin’s,” played like a fiery exclamation point of second set resolution, the first South Carolina Furthur show had acquired an epic feeling. An odd pairing of “Masterpiece” and  the second Beatles cover of the night, “Revolution,” made for something of an incongruous, overstuffed encore, but with the high vibration of the galloping, Kadlecik -led “Franklin’s Tower” still reverberating in the concrete of the coliseum walls, the crowd filtered out into the cool Southern night with with its  ears and spirit full: strangers greeted strangers, a troubadour sang songs, veggie burritos were bartered and eaten, postshow beers and exotic tobaccos shared in the best traditional of the Grateful Dead scene, where friends — indeed, family — have always been easy to find, even in 2011, far removed from the full-on lot experience of the late 80s and 90s. The world continues to turn and burn, but Phil and Bobby, along with their seasoned side players, seem intent on keeping the spirit and the music far from nostalgic, and far from dead.

 

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[1] But nobody’s lying idle: the drummers have their own band, called The Rhythm Devils, which features such jamband notables as Keller Williams and Garcia guitar protege Steve Kimock, with whom Lesh once played until a backstage imbroglio over pay led to Kimock’s departure from Phil Lesh & Friends. Kimock had been a key element in Lesh’s return to health and creativity following his 1999 liver transplant; it is a shame that money had to ruin what had been an exciting musical dialogue between two virtuosi.

[2] Former Dead backup singer, married to 70s era keyboardist Keith Godchaux. She now tours with her own band doing originals and covers, including lots of Grateful Dead.

[3] Mydland died of a drug overdose in July 1990, only three days after the Dead’s summer tour ended. He was replaced by Tubes member Vince Welnick and, for a time, songwriter Bruce Hornsby, who is to date notable as the only musician having occupied the keyboard slot in the Grateful Dead who did not go on to die, either while in the band or shortly thereafter. Welnick’s is perhaps the saddest case; after over ten years of depression following the dissolution of the Grateful Dead, and the only living former member never asked to participate in either The Other Ones or The Dead, Welnick committed suicide in May 2006 by slashing his own throat with a steak knife and bleeding to death on the hillside behind his California home.

[4] Ron “Pigpen” McKernon, the original frontman of the band, died of complications from liver disease in March 1973. Following his death, Garcia proclaimed that “it can never be the real Grateful Dead again now.”

[5] Barraco replaced DSO’s original keyboardist Scott Larned, who, like the musicians he’d emulated, died suddenly following a tour.

[6] Mattson, a busy man, also assays the role of lead guitarist in the Donna Jean Band.

[7] Prior to the emergence of Dark Star Orchestra, the Zen Tricksters were considered the most formidable and accomplished Dead cover band.

[8] See earlier Pigpen footnote re: Garcia’s opinion regarding authenticity.

[9] One thing Furthur indeed takes further is the range of cover tunes chosen to complement the Dead songbook, including a cheeky interpretation of the Beatles ABBEY ROAD album spread out over a dozen shows, one song of which — “Because” — thrilled the Charleston audience with its dramatic layered harmonies; strong vocals were never the Dead’s metier, but with backup singers this band enjoys a vastly improved vocal range.

[10] Not Lesh’s exact words, I’m sure.

[11] An infamous couple of shows last summer in New York found Weir to be incoherent, an occurrence later blamed on taking prescription medication on an empty stomach.

 

One Response to FURTHUR Winds Down Their Most Recent Tour with a Stop at North Charleston Coliseum in South Carolina

  1. […] of my ongoing career. Some of my recent work can be seen in Columbia Living magazine, as well as on jambandsonline.com, a site to which I contribute the occasional concert […]

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