Concert Review: Furthur in Manchester, NH, 2/18/10

(You can listen to the show here.  Hug a taper!)

In the 15 years since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead have been searching – sometimes together but frequently apart – for the right way to keep their music alive without the presence of their friend and reluctant bandleader.

They seemingly chose two radically different paths: Lesh played with a rotating group of “friends,” bringing in fresh voices from outside of the dead family in an attempt to continuously reinterpret the classic sound. Regardless of the band members, Phil’s sound was typically in the mold of the late 1960s version of the Grateful Dead – bluesy and psychedelic, experimental and risky, with an equal opportunity for success or failure.

Bobby took a very different road. His band, RatDog, was built for consistency and professionalism. The sound was much closer to the late 1980s iteration of the Grateful Dead when the “Bobstar” was in ascendence. RatDog’s music is tight and jazzy. While the songbook is large, the setlists tend to be fairly formulaic.

The one area where Phil and Bobby seemed to agreed was in how to handle the ‘Garcia dilemma.’ Rather than trying to find a replacement for Jerry’s two dominant voices: his guitar and his vocals – they seemed to specifically avoid putting anyone in that hot spot. In RatDog, Bobby took over singing duties for all of the Jerry tunes and put Mark Karan in the lead guitar slot. Karan is an amazing musician (as evidenced by his terrific debut album, Walk Through the Fire <review>) who plays in service to Bobby’s vision, as opposed to taking the dominant Garcia role. Phil’s friends – Warren Haynes, Joan Osbourne, Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson, Larry Campbell, Trey Anastasio, Jimmy Herring, Steve Kimock – never attempted to mimick Garcia either. If anything, many of Phil’s friends seemed to be filling the Pigpen slot in the band.

In a weird way it made sense. Garcia was such a force of nature that it seemed impossible, perhaps foolish, to try to replace him. So the challenge over the years became one of presenting a compelling version of the Grateful Dead without its key ingredient. Sometimes it worked – PLQ, TOO ’98, Phil & Chris, Dead ’03 – but oftentimes it also felt like a watered-down version of the Grateful Dead.

Given the history, it was shocking when Phil & Bobby announced last year that they would forming a new band without Billy Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart but with the inclusion of John Kadlecik – best known as “Fake Jerry” in the much respected Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra. For the first time in 15 years Phil & Bobby were consciously choosing to “replace” Jerry Garcia in the band. It was a risky decision. If it worked, the Grateful Dead – the real Grateful Dead – might finally be back. If it failed, they would have committed their legacy to the nostalgia heap forevermore.

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Arenas, even small ones like Manchester, New Hampshire’s, are a challenge when one is used to attending theater shows. The atmosphere and acoustics are designed for minor-league hockey games, not musical parties, but as far as arenas go, this wasn’t a bad one. It’s comparable to the Agganis Arena in Boston. I suspect that sound quality is entirely dependent on where you’re sitting. We were diagonal from Jeff Chimenti, so we got a lot of piano in the mix – which isn’t a bad thing at all. Ticket time was 7:30 and the band took the stage at precisely 8:00.

As soon as the band started warming up two things became readily apparent: first, we’d be getting a Feel Like a Stranger opener. Secondly, JK’s guitar tone was perfect. Stranger was solid – a languid version that seemed to embrace rather than rev up the crowd – but the guitar tone was unmistakable. I’ve heard better Strangers in the last 15 years, but I’ve never heard one that sounded as “right” as this version. The gauntlet was down – John Kadlecik announced from his very first note that he was definitely going to deliver the unmistakable Garcia guitar sound.

Next up came a standard reading of Loose Lucy that featured very strong vocals by Bobby. He sounds and looks great right now. Bobby’s appearance is usually a pretty reliable indicator of his performance level and right now he’s obviously in a very good place. In fact, 2010 might feature the skinniest front 3 in 30 years or so. Appearances aside, nothing could prepare us for what would come next.

John’s first lead vocal performance on It Must Have Been the Roses was nothing short of astounding. I’m not sure if it was the song, the performance, or the fact that it was my first exposure to his talent, but it was the single greatest version of a Grateful Dead song that I’ve heard since Jerry died. He didn’t just nail the song, he fully inhabited it. At that moment, everything made sense. I suddenly understood why Phil & Bobby, after so many years, had finally decided to replace Jerry. Instead of trying to find a new path for a Jerry-less version of the Dead, they were trying to resurrect the Grateful Dead. We all felt it – the Grateful Dead had finally returned. It was one of those rare, magical moments that explains why we seek out live music.

Although the emotional peak of the night was reached so early there was still plenty of music ahead. Bob and John alternated verses on a fun version of Deep Elem Blues, which also featured a great solo by Jeff. The fallow portion followed with the Brent tune Just a Little Light followed by a newer RatDog song Money for Gasoline (how did Bobby sneak that one past Phil?) It’s not to say that those songs are bad or that the performances were weak – Jay Lane in particular was great on Money for Gasoline – it’s just that those songs can’t measure up to the many, many stellar tunes in the Grateful Dead songbook.

I predict that a new mantra, “let John sing,” will sweep through the Dead community, especially after hearing him give new life to old warhorses like Loser.  I’m an Bobby fan from way back when (okay, from way back in the ’80s) but there’s no reason for Bobby to sing Jerry songs when John is standing right there.  Natural order can finally be restored to the universe: Bobby can sing cheesy rockers and cowboy songs, Phil can sing Phil songs and John can sing everything else!

The set closed out with a great Sugaree, once again driven by John (perfect solo) and Jeff. It was a short 72 minute set, but it was long enough to demonstrate that Furthur was very different than previous iterations of the Dead. The only thing that seemed to be missing was Phil. His presence wasn’t absent in the first set, but it wasn’t dominant either. Hopefully the second set would rectify that problem.

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At 10:00 a slow and tasty Truckin’ got the action started again. We seemed to be getting a lot of the “big” songs, which contrary to popular belief, isn’t always a good thing. It’s often hard to find freshness in songs that have been played and heard so many times before, but Furthur was bringing a different vibe to the classics. They sounded both new and old at the same time, probably as a result of bring in the “old” voice of Jerry through John, in addition to the newer perspectives of Joe Russo and Jay Lane on percussion and Jeff Chimenti on keys. It needs to be said that Chimenti is a beast on the piano. He plays somewhere between the boogie-woogie blues of Pigpen and the clean improvisation of Keith Godchaux. For a band that’s gone through quite a few keyboardists in the last 40 years, Jeff is definitely a keeper.

The opening bars of Viola Lee Blues had a transformative effect on the crowd and instantly we were transported to a Phil & Friends show. To me, Viola Lee is the quintessential Phil song and the long jam was just great. Man, I loves me some Viola Lee and this was a good one.

Years ago Phil realized that Ryan Adams does a better job of writing contemporary Americana (i.e. GD) music than any other living artist and he was wise to incorporate many Ryan tunes into his songbook. Tonight we got (as I predicted in the car!) an excellent version of Nobody Girl, sung by JK. Next, Phil came roaring back with a tremendous Bird Song that again showed his gift for elevating simple compositions. Bobby, not to be shown up, treated us all to a Born Cross-Eyed, a difficult song to perform that was pulled off quite well.

The second set continued on its epic (yeah, I said it) path with a great Scarlet Begonias. All night I was trying to put a “date” on the band. They sounded too polished to be the early Dead but they definitely didn’t sound like Brent-era Dead either. During Scarlet I got a very strong 1976 vibe, so I’m sticking with that. Furthur sounds closest to 1976 vintage Dead (sans Donna). I can’t imagine anyone complaining about that.

Unlike 1976, they followed Scarlet with Fire on the Mountain, which was great, even if a part of me missed seeing Mickey with his fucking beam rapping the lyrics. We’ll always love you, Mickey.

The set ended at 11:41 with Sugar Magnolia/Sunshine Daydream played perfectly. The second set, both in performance and design, was masterful. It was a set worthy of the good old Grateful Dead.

Two short minutes later Phil came out to make the Donor Rap and the band played The Weight to close out the night just before midnight. It was a fitting end, with John, Bobby and Phil sharing the verses as well as sharing their visions of the past and the future of the Grateful Dead.

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Many months ago I asked the question, “Is it a good idea for Bobby & Phil to go Furthur?” My fear was that they would finally, fatally turn the Dead into a nostalgia act by including a Jerry replacement. But the Grateful Dead was always a band defined by living on the edge of disaster and taking risks. Embracing the possibility of failure was a key component to their success. For 15 years Phil and Bobby did everything they could to avoid being the Grateful Dead. Out of respect or perhaps out of fear they left the Jerry spot vacant. And while the results were frequently enjoyable, Jerry’s absence was always present on stage and in the sound of the music. But by bringing in John and bringing back the voice of Jerry, we no longer have to miss Jerry – we can celebrate him and revel in his legacy.

Here’s the truth: John Kadlecik doesn’t bring us Fake Jerry. He brings us the real Grateful Dead.

(Yup, it’s that good.)

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