I was rather happy with last night’s Furthur. If this is how the music of the Grateful Dead is going to live for the foreseeable future, it’s in very protective hands.
This band feels somewhat like the merging of Ratdog and Phil & Friends with the least desirable parts of each (and the truly experimental elements) all falling by the wayside. Weir isn’t choking the jams like he does in Ratdog and Phil isn’t trying to orchestrate everything like he does in Phil & Friends. Of course, the difference maker here is John Kadlecik, who is playing the lead guitar lines we all know and love. He’s really the one who’s making this music accessible to the masses, whereas Phil & Friends were always trying to take it into some fusion-inspired direction, while Ratdog was going for a more sparse sound. Kadlecik is putting the rounded edges on this beast, ensuring that nothing pointy sticks out and pokes you in the eye. Whether or not you want your beast with rounded edges is a different story.
The opening “Other One Jam” was solid, and it was unexpectedly great when they suddenly shifted into “Playin’ In the Band.” However, the buttery smooth transition into an Eric Clapton-style “After Midnight” was the moment when the band truly shifted gears. Thanks to Sir Joe Russo laying in the pocket, everything became tre funky. Kadlecik took the charge and started dishing out his first major statements of the evening, throwing us back to 1970 with intensity. However, disappointment was afoot as soon as backup singers Zoe Ellis and Sunshine Garcia Becker had their chance to sing one of the greatest lines ever written for backup singer: “What it is all about, What it is all about!” Unfortunately, in a moment that begs for the backup singers to cut loose and wail, they delivered the straightest, most soulless rendition of these lyrics I’ve ever heard. They were perfectly on pitch, but everything out of their mouths sounded incredibly square, almost as if they were singing chamber music. This would become a running theme throughout the night, but these two also had their virtues because every time they sang the lyrics in unison with the big three, the vocals were mixed perfectly and sounded excellent. It seems as though the rigid styling that makes them ideal backup singers also makes their sound less than ideal when singing their own lines. By the way, Sunshine Garcia Becker is apparently no relation to Jerry, but her fate to sing this music was obviously predetermined by her parents on her birth certificate.
“They Love Each Other” relished in the mid-‘70s Jerry Garcia Band groove, and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” was a rousing crowd pleaser. On the whole, Weir’s vocals over the course of the night were surprisingly good (for Bob Weir circa 2010), and when he couldn’t sustain the notes, the entire audience was more than willing to fill in the gaps. I honestly can’t recall a live version of “Masterpiece” that I’ve enjoyed more than this one with it’s full-throated sing-a-long and happy vibe. “The Race Is On” was a nice, rare boogie, perfect for a little swing dancing in the aisle with Ms. The, although that was the first time that I’ve ever attempted swing dancing on a 35 degree incline, and thankfully, no ankles were broken. The “Dear Mr. Fantasy” that followed was dripping in psychedelia, despite failing to take advantage of the backup singers. Kadlecik led a little jamlet out of this one, heavily teasing “Hey Jude” before the band dissolved into a Jeff Chimenti solo that seemed to be prompted by Phil. I hadn’t really noticed Chimenti up until this point, but if this was his time to shine, he sure as Hell took advantage of it. Simply put, the man cut loose on the baby grand like a dosed version of Professor Longhair. He was dropping into this wild, barrelhouse piano groove that kept revolving around a captivatingly odd riff. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this moment featured some of the finest keyboard work to be heard on a stage with Lesh and Weir since 1992, if not 1974. It was *that* good.
The solo wove its way into Ratdog’s “Two Djinn,” a number I haven’t heard in at least 10 years. This one was lengthy, and every time I kept thinking, “Okay, Bob, you’re boring me,” they went right into this very catchy hook that sucked everyone back in. The “Samson and Delilah” set closer was thunderous, wailing, and right on point. No complaints there.
I went to visit friends during setbreak and found myself in a great seat all the way down on house left with plenty of room to move during a “Viola Lee Blues” opener that was more funky than psychedelic. Keeping with the funkdafied theme, they leapt right into a fantastic “Shakedown Street” that had everyone up and grooving. Shortly after the start, people returned to the seats I was occupied. The very nice young woman kindly offered to share her space, but I needed room to dance, so I gratefully declined. Apparently, that was not okay with her because she said, “No, really you can stay.”
“Thank you, that’s very generous, but I’m going to go,” I replied.
“I’m serious. It’s okay. We can share the space,” she said.
“I appreciate that, but I’m going to find some more room.”
“Really, I don’t mind!”
“Ummm…I’m going now.”
Having escaped the clutches of her generosity, I found myself moving back a bit in the center left aisle, getting a perfect view with excellent sound. The security was also super chill, and they never hassled me at all. The fairly relaxed vibe of the staff really added to the excellent ambiance and sound in Radio City.
I need to add that the band did some cool things to the arrangement of “Shakedown,” adding in a few stops and turns and a great “Shake it down, shake it down, shake it down, shake it down now” vocal section that seemed to be ripped right out of the Commodores’ “Brick House.” And with the aid of Russo, Kadlecik was really working the tension-and-release solos to thrilling effect.
The resulting “Hard to Handle” had a very odd feel to it. The 8-6-71 version with Pigpen is one of the high watermarks for the Grateful Dead, and if that dog-in-heat version was NC-17, last night’s rendition was rated G and appropriate for preschoolers. Somehow they’d stripped the song of its raw sexuality and left a cute, purple Teletubby in its place. That being said, I kind of enjoyed it, which probably makes me gay in the eyes of the late Jerry Falwell.
“Deal” continued the hot streak with some of the most searing leads of the night from Kadlecik. Chimenti also took advantage of another all-too-rare opportunity to bust out some rollicking piano chops, often getting the best of Kadlecik in their back-and-forth sections. The whole band was really locked in here, and the much of the house was rockin’ with “Mason’s Children”…but then they deep-sixed all the energy in the room by moving into “Days Between.” Truthfully, Weir delivered a fine version of this song, but it really took the wind out of a lot of sails. Down front, the vast majority of the aging audience took sat down in those cushy seats to wait out this one. For me, the momentum of the set was lost, and while the resulting “Let It Grow” had plenty of excellent moments, I now felt like I was in a different show. As a result, the closing “Franklin’s Tower” never truly soared as it normally does when coming out of the buildup from “Help On the Way->Slipknot!” It should be noted that people cheered for the rare Phil-led vocal, which wasn’t much to write home about but was still a welcome change of pace from Weir’s horrendous Shatner-ized versions from 2009. The “Johnny B. Goode” encore was little more than standard.
As far as a light show goes, I personally find this setup to be rather weak. They have very few lights and seem to have invested most of their money in a gigantic LED screen that naturally looks rather pixelated up close and appears to be a lot clearer from a distance. The images they showed were often very incongruous with the music, and I’d imagine the shots of barbed wire flying in your face during “Let It Grow” must have been mildly horrifying for anyone who’d paid a visit to Dr. Hoffman. It’s no secret that these tours are now thinly-veiled money-grabs for Lesh and Weir, but if you’re going to charge people an arm-and-a-leg for tickets, you need to deliver more than just excellent music. People are paying for a performance, and if we’re shelling out at a significantly higher price than we did in the past, it’s time to shoot off some lasers, inflate a pig, or at least light someone on fire. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Was anything last night ground-breaking, Earth-shaking, or even “the shit”? No way, Jose. But were there any trainwrecks? No, not at all. I hesitate to call the show “safe,” but the element of risk was certainly missing. That may be part and parcel of this relatively new band’s philosophy, but it’s probably a little too early to tell. On the positive side, Russo adds plenty of vitality to the drumming, never settling for the kind of heavy-handed pedestrian beats which had previously plagued many of the ballads. In the realm of percussion, I’m not quite sure what Jay Lane adds to the mix, but nothing he did stuck out like a sore thumb, so I can’t complain. The new-found trust in Kadlecik is what seems to have really improved the sound of this group. They’re wisely letting him sing lead more often, and they’re giving him space to shine. Unfortunately, he’s not always taking advantage of these opportunities and doesn’t quite consistently sound like a guitarist leading a band, which is probably because he’s not one of the two leaders. Of course, his playing is as Garcia-esque as we’re ever going to hear, although he is wrapping each and every one of Garcia’s lines in bubbles, removing any daring edges from the work. Again, it’s all very protected and enjoyable, and hopefully, this is the foundation for a musical experience that will eventually embrace the unexpected and take some risks. Until that time, these shows will remain nothing more than pleasantly fun. No harm, no foul.