Furthur | 12.31 | San Francisco

Words by: Garrin Benfield | Images by: Susan J Weiand

Furthur :: 12.31 :: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA

Furthur :: 12.31 :: San Francisco
If you have not yet seen Furthur, this is what you need to know: This is a living, breathing band capable of rocking, spacing, and generating some serious psychedelic boogie. I think it's safe to say that everyone inside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on New Year's Eve felt blessed to once again be able to celebrate this high holiday of improvisational rock & roll with color, class, and amidst musical performances that seriously did right by the Grateful Dead's legacy.

Setlists aside, the story of this band is certainly John Kadlecik (pronounced Kad' luh sik), clearly the most unapologetic Jerry-influenced member of any of the official post-Garcia projects. But Kadlecik just might be the best thing to happen to "The Dead" in years. I will admit to some serious ambivalence about the idea of inviting a sort of "mimic" into what I always assumed would be a relentlessly forward looking endeavor - the continued reinterpretation of the Garcia/Hunter catalog - until I realized that what JK's presence does is continue a tradition of musical searching with sincerity and intensity while also scratching the itch of having someone in there who really knows the internal architecture of Jerry's playing.

Perhaps what JK enables Phil and Bobby to do is to play like themselves again, to truly shine while utilizing the unique skills they built over 30 years - skills that were primarily used for the purpose of artfully darting around Jerry's world-class improvisational flights. That's not to say I have not enjoyed, to degrees, the contributions of all the post-Jerry lead guitarists that have been brought into the fold. I will say I was partial to the nimble, sunny, Strat-toned grace of Jimmy Herring, which seemed to me to best embody both the gravity and light-footedness of Garcia. But unlike even Herring, I would say JK knows these songs as well as anyone, including Phil and Bobby - minus, of course, the experience of their composition, recording, and the accompanying memories of years of performance.

Weir & Kadlecik :: 12.31 :: San Francisco
And that leads me to what might be the strangest part of watching Weir take cues from JK (yes, he did LEAD the band at times). I wondered if the so-close-it's-scary Garcia guitar tone and vocal affectations might send the old-timers into some serious déjà vu, or if the simpatico might also encourage a kind of complacency from Weir and Lesh, as it subconsciously reminded them of shows, tours or years that were not particularly inspired. Luckily JK lent a genuine enthusiasm to the proceedings, and a knowledge so deep and reverent that I think his contribution is resoundingly positive. It took me a while to come to this resolve (really over the course of both NYE shows, 12/30 and 12/31), as I am still most drawn to, and intrigued by, the "authentic gestures" of Dead music; meaning the two guys in this band who have become, in my estimation, much more than footnotes in history as individual musicians, but more like historically significant improvisational voices: Weir and Lesh. I believe this is true not only for their association with the Grateful Dead, but because of their wholly unique approaches to guitar and electric bass, respectively.

On that note, rest assured that Phil was as clear-headed and powerful as ever on that strange Ritter bass of his, and Bobby remains one of the coolest "rhythm" guitar player, not just in rock & Roll, but maybe ever, switching between his pink Strat, (that some older heads will remember from 88-89, I believe it was his first MIDI-equipped axe), his Gibson hollow body (circa 1974) and the blue Modulus with the lightning bolt sound holes. The addition of Joe Russo on drums also cannot be underestimated, as his most direct, powerful playing retained a certain swing and finesse, and his interaction with longtime RatDog drummer Jay Lane frequently upped the energy level significantly. This drum duo does not have the volcanic power of The Rhythm Devils, but lends the band a certain flexibility that comes with having just one full drum kit and one percussionist. Jeff Chimenti, by now a very familiar face in this scene, remained his ever reliable self, playing all the right things almost always, and taking a few piano solos that brought the house down. The other new faces onstage were two female singers who lent pretty harmony and background vocals to many songs on both nights. This being a fairly dense band, however, their contributions were frequently overshadowed or undermixed.

Phil Lesh :: 12.31 :: San Francisco
The first half of the first set on New Year's Eve felt like an old school Dead show, when songs were not all necessarily connected by long segues. We were able to ease into what was going to be a long evening with combustible versions of "Shakedown Street" and "Jack Straw." The mid-set "Candyman" was a full-room sing-along, with Kadlecik referencing the shimmering rotary-speaker sound that Jerry almost always used on that tune. "Viola Lee Blues" cracked wide open into a far ranging jam, and was the evening's first nod to what must seem to many like the ancient history of The Dead. The "Truckin'" that followed and closed the set was perfectly mid-tempo, allowing the climactic jam at the end to truly build, accented by the evening's first real Phil thunder. A fantastic beginning. It was also really fascinating to listen to JK utilize different Jerry tones that we associate with disparate eras in the course of one tune, from slinky Europe '72 Fender to the mid rangey MIDI-distortion of a '93 "Slipknot!"

Speaking of, the next set slammed wide open with a precise, sharp "Help" > "Slip" > "Franklin's" that joyously brought the room together, and what followed was, with just a few exceptions, a gorgeously drippy psychedelic excursion through "Cassidy," "The Wheel," "Dark Star" and perhaps most notably, Pink Floyd's "Time" from Dark Side of the Moon. Unfortunately, this bold and inspired choice also contained the night's first major misstep, namely, Phil's vocal take, which was marred by pitch problems and that oddly square sense of rhythm he often applies to his vocal phrasing. But the love in the room was so palpable at this point that no one seemed hung up on nitpicking, and we just continued flowing through a lovely "Uncle John's" and another surprise, "After Midnight," delivered by JK with the fervor of an early 80s JGB version. What a nice relief to have him lead the band through an exploratory set with truly narrative guitar playing, not separate, unrelated paragraphs of notes, but entire jams that felt as if they were one gesture, or breath.

Furthur :: 12.31 :: San Francisco
The entire New Year's moment (or minutes) seemed as delightfully disjointed and weirdly paced as any of the old BGP celebrations, with multiple layers of events going on simultaneously, including the New Year's baby rising out of a red fog-drenched cave, and then riding a very glam-inspired silver skull with red sequined eyes over the floor, while Father Time, children holding large DayGlo flowers, and (if I remember correctly) a collection of wood-nymph like creatures spread around the stage - all to the tune of The Beatle's "All You Need is Love." The countdown to 2010 sped by, balloons dropped, and everyone hugged and just hung out for a few minutes taking in the roar of the crowd and the crazy scene around us. The next segment of music got underway not with the expected "Sugar Magnolia" but a perfect "Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion" that has been modernized and given some extra muscle, with an added rave-up at the end that seemed to take the place quite nicely of a "Sugar Mag" jam.

The entire third set was a marvel not just for the incredible energy expended, but for the inspired song choices, especially "Let it Grow," which was as stately and majestic as it's ever been, particularly recontextualized as a New Year's letter between band and audience. The "Cryptical" > "Other One" > "Cryptical" suite was pulled off with a panache that always seemed to elude The Dead. The ballad slot was occupied by a gorgeous "So Many Roads," and the whole thing was brought to an enormous conclusion with what was probably a half hour's worth of "St. Stephen," "The Eleven" and "Not Fade Away."

Lesh, Weir, Russo :: 12.31 :: San Francisco
After a few minutes of explosive appreciation from the packed house, Phil returned to the stage alone and said, "Well, Happy New Year to you, too!," which elicited another whole resounding level of heartfelt cheers. Bobby then led the band into a charged "Sugar Magnolia" encore (for the setlist geeks out there, a very unusual placement, but I think the band knew they couldn't get outta there without playing that!) and the evening came home perfectly and gracefully.

There has been a not oft-recognized bit of anxiety running through The Dead scene in recent years about whether the band is losing relevance - as evidenced by the many conversations I overheard about whether the Bill Graham Civic was sold out or not. For years, even when The Dead and the scene were routinely disparaged in the mainstream press, heads could at least lean on the fact that "their" band sold out every show in every venue they played, and was continually the top-grossing live act in the country. I can tell you this: On the 30th, all but a VERY few upper tier seats were taken, and on New Year's, the place was packed to the gills. More importantly, on both nights, NO ONE left these shows until the last note!

I get a little misty reflecting on years of New Year's throwdowns, a tradition virtually invented by Bill Graham and The Dead. Watching the younger kids file stonily out of the venue with glazed, satiated looks, I was reassured that this music still communicates something essential, still allows the channeling of some energy that flows through the roots of the Haight-Ashbury and into deep space, and still needs to be performed in large darkened halls of dancing fools - sober, tripping, young, old, graceful, rude, beatific and impatient. And I was reminded, proudly, that this band and this scene, albeit in a calmer, more diffuse stage, still gives any other contemporary act a run for its money. This was not just another jam band New Year's show, this was one more deep reminder of the cultural importance of the Bay Area, and how lucky we are to celebrate it together once again.

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12.31 :: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Set I: Shakedown Street, Jack Straw, Mama Tried, Candyman, Loose Lucy, Viola Lee Blues, Truckin'
Set II: Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower, Cassidy, The Wheel > Dark Star > Time > Uncle John's Band, After Midnight
Set III: Countdown to Midnight > Golden Road > Let It Grow > Cryptical Envelopment > Born Cross-Eyed > The Other One > Cryptical Envelopment > So Many Roads, St. Stephen > The Eleven > Not Fade Away
E: Donor Rap, Sugar Magnolia

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