By Mike Finkelstein
It’s rather phenomenal, the way the Grateful Dead tradition continues to thrive. On Saturday evening, Furthur, featuring two original G.D. smembers — rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh – hosted the second night of a sold out, jam-packed, three-night weekend stint in perfect evening weather at the Greek Theatre. Last year they did two nights at the Greek, this year they did three. So it seems that their popularity is increasing.
It was nothing short of a tribal gathering as the ceremony commenced in the parking lot with friends meeting, reconnecting, and sharing set lists in the familiar haze of weed, tie-dye and patchouli oil.
In the wake of lead guitarist and spiritual leader Jerry Garcia’s death more than 18 years ago, Furthur (Bob Weir/guitars,vocals, Phil Lesh/bass, John Kadlecik/guitar,vocals, Jeff Chimenti/keyboards, Joe Russon/drums, Sunshine Becker/backing vocals, Jeff Pehrson/backing vocals) is the most popular lineup to carry the G.D. torch. The name was cleverly lifted from the placard atop the psychedelic bus driven by Merry Prankster Neal Cassady during the legendary Acid Tests of the mid-1960’s. After all, the Grateful Dead were actually on that bus as the house band for the festivities.
The Furthur format is a proven winner: play lots of fan favorite Grateful Dead songs; throw in tasty covers; have guests who get the psychedelic mindset sit in(they will know the vibe and the tunes, and love playing them); change the set list each night, relax and jam. The tribe will certainly take care of the rest.
Many superb musicians started out as Dead fans themselves, and as they came up, they learned by listening to tapes, and going to the shows, to improvise in that style. This was a simple labor of love. From the beginning the band was very friendly and supportive to their listeners about everything audience-related. (In fact, this approach has served as a model for similar Dead-inspired bands like String Cheese Incident and Phish in building their lasting audience bonds.) The Dead always encouraged and enabled their fans to participate in taping their shows. It follows that there is a whole lot of live audio in circulation for people to learn from in depth. With Jerry Garcia dearly departed, there is essentially a giant hole in the surviving sound, right up there on stage, that can be filled by a baker’s dozen of very talented Dead fans from other bands.
Lead guitarist Jon Kadlecik’s route into Furthur is worth noting because he was recruited from his own renowned Dead tribute band, Dark Star Orchestra. If Bob Weir and Phil Lesh want you to. leave your tribute band to join them, of course you’ve gotta go for it. Kadlecik’s voice and guitar do sound hauntingly like Garcia ‘s and it’s not at all hard to see why they would want him in the lineup.
Saturday’s guests were guitarists Jonathon Wilson and Neil Casal, neither of whom are in tribute bands. Both are established in their own right, but are fans and totally get the G.D. vibe and the esthetic. They fit right in and Casal, in particular, sounded great singing over the band as though he, too, had always been there. He did a winsome job with “Scarlet Begonias” to start the second set and, later, a transcendent version of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.”
Saturday’s show began with the usual noodling warm-up, out of which inevitably creeps a recognizable phrase from one or another G.D. tunes. Once the phrase surfaces, a ripple of recognition seems to spread across the crowd. Tonight the opening tune was “Feel Like A Stranger,” which was followed by an invigorated version of “Friend of the Devil.” By the time they were ready to launch into a crowd pleasing “Bertha,” special guest Jonathon Wilson had plugged in his Stratocaster and played lead guitar in the pocket between Bob Weir and John Kadlecik. He stayed on stage for three more tunes till the end of the first set and sounded like he was always part of the band. “New Speedway Boogie,” from Workingman’s Dead sounded particularly upbeat, powered by the three guitars and a fine vocal from Weir.
Watching Bob Weir and Phil Lesh play the Furthur material does turn attention to the fact that both guys have a very unique approach to their instrument. There is a signature sound between the drums, bass and lead guitar that these two have always provided. It still sounds remarkably unique, yet completely familiar to Dead fans.
For any chord progression the band may be following, Weir rarely uses basic chords during the jam section. Instead, it’s all about setting up a rhythm guitar part that is as interesting yet unobtrusive as possible. He usually has several alternative chord routes through the song using inversions and playing off of the percussion. The general effect is to open up a rhythmically enticing space for the soloists to groove upon…and not step on anyone else’s musical feet in the process. What Weir does with the possibilities for rhythm guitar is art. And on Saturday, Weir even stepped up several times to play harmony leads with Kadlecik.
Phil Lesh has always been one of the more unorthodox sounding bass players in rock circles. His style is busy and bouncy, much like the motion of boiling water. It’s always fun to focus on his bass lines because he takes some odd angles. It often sounds like he’s experimenting as he goes and the tension draws us in. For this show, he looked positively jazzed as he ran up and down his six string bass. Two more strings means all the more possibilities for Phil to explore and he was certainly running with it.
Saturday night featured a savory version of “Terrapin Station,” nearly twenty minutes of structured, melodic jazz and progressive rock interplay. This is what the G.D. were up to in about 1977. The crowd dug it immensely and pieces of music like this one are what still drive the Grateful Dead mystique.
In the end, Furthur is the direct connection to the Grateful Dead tradition. Though Jerry Garcia is gone, Jon Kalecik maintained his place in the sound masterfully. Moreover, Weir and Lesh, two of the very unique elements that made up the band’s sound, remain as musically recognizable as ever. The whole thing works perhaps on a higher level than the Dead were on towards the end, but it isn’t completely the Dead. Still, the sound is revitalized. The tribe thrives and they are showing up.
That being said, Furthur will be on hiatus during 2014 and Lesh is 73 with a transplanted liver. So, catch ’em while you can.
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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.