Furthur | East Coast Shows | Review

Words by: Garrin Benfield | Images by: Jay Blakesberg

Furthur :: 07.16.11 :: Bethel Woods :: Bethel, NY

Furthur :: 07.17.11 :: Jones Beach Amphitheatre :: Wantagh NY

Furthur :: 07.23.11 :: Mann Center :: Philadelphia, PA

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Furthur @ GOTV ’11 by Jay Blakesberg
If you are marginally involved in the Grateful Dead scene, or perhaps even a distant admirer of improvisational rock, you have probably heard the word on the street that Furthur is the best thing to happen since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. If you’ve resisted drinking that particular Kool Aid, I come bearing good news from three of the shows early in the band’s most ambitious Summer Tour - Furthur is on fire! The shows I caught were filled with focused, purposeful playing, diverse, well considered setlists, and a cohesion that can only come from working hundreds of gigs with a consistent lineup. Perhaps most importantly, the energy onstage is more cooperative and loose than it has been in years. Smiles all around!

07.16.11 :: Bethel Woods :: Bethel, NY

Furthur’s debut at Bethel Woods, the nearly-new amphitheatre built adjacent to the original site of the Woodstock Festival, was essentially the tour opener, though the band had played the All Good Festival in West Virginia the previous evening. The venue is surrounded by rolling green hills, wooden fences and lush trees, which seemed to have a calming effect on the already mellow crowd. The cookie-cutter shed itself (insert corporately-owned venue here) sounded good but was aesthetically disappointing.

Bob Weir @ GOTV ’11 by Jay Blakesberg
Without hesitation, Bobby dropped into a “Feel Like a Stranger” that set the right pace for a Summer afternoon. Even before the first instrumental break all five lead players (yes, I’m including drummer Joe Russo) were clearly busting at the seams to interact. The whole first set was dripping with the kind of improvised interlocking parts for which this band is becoming justifiably well known. The choice to play “Crazy Fingers” next spoke volumes about the confidence of the band, who were more than up to the task of delivering a second set-worthy version. “Cumberland Blues” galvanized the whole room for the first time, and was pried open by Jeff Chimenti’s pounding, slightly atonal piano solo. Phil’s stately rearrangement of “Bird Song” segued gracefully into “Cassidy,” both of which were fully explored. John Kadelecik then broke out the underplayed and underappreciated late-era Garcia/Hunter song “Built to Last,” and delivered it with the conviction we have come to expect from him. Two Bob Weir showcases, “Big Bad Blues” and “Playin’ in the Band,” were played with early tour gusto, setting a magnificent tone for the set (and month) ahead. Of particular note was Chimenti’s re-harmonization of the main “Playin’” theme as the long jam emerged into the light of day.

Jeff Chimenti @ GOTV ’11
By Jay Blakesberg
The second set was high energy throughout, but to my ears the clear MVP was again keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. His piano solos, particularly on “Eyes of the World,” struck just the right balance between a dedicated pocket-driven sensibility and the freewheeling psychedelia these songs demand. Having “The Eleven” lurch out of “Slipknot” was a nice left turn, and an even bigger surprise was how inspired this song was, both in Bobby’s sung/shouted “What Now” refrains, and in Phil’s thundering lines. After “Franklin’s Tower” (which, frankly, I could do without much more of) came the gem of the second set - a gleaming rendition of “Comes a Time,” one of Garcia’s most personal ballads sung as a duet between Kadalecik and vocalist Sunshine Garcia-Becker. If you want to hear how far Furthur has evolved as a band, and how, with their encouragement, Kadelecik has grown into his own shoes, listen to this one song from this night. We all know these guys are pioneering virtuosos, but the graceful delivery of this delicate tune really re-set the bar in terms of their taste and musicality.

07.17.11 :: Jones Beach Amphitheatre :: Wantagh NY

It’s always fascinating to observe how the energy of a touring band, particularly one with an improvisational bent, differs from night to night. The opening of this show had the flow of a more standard first set formula, but included some real peaks. Slapping a tambourine, Bob started things off with the requisite but fiery “Samson and Delilah”, which has been reenergized by an acapella intro. “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” sung by JK, suffered a bit from placement. Unlike “Crazy Fingers” the previous evening, I’m not sure “Fantasy” ever proved exactly why it emerged so early in the show. “Black Throated Wind,” always welcome in my book, was particularly appropriate in this breezy, oceanside venue. Bob sang this one to the first real climax of the set. After the Furthur debut of “Jack a Roe,” they launched into a forceful, tight “Tom Thumb’s Blues” intro that portended great things. Unfortunately, as well as Phil was singing, the tune lost some steam midway through the verses. All was forgiven by the time Bob wrapped up an impassioned, well articulated “Throwing Stones” and the New York crowd was given a dusk “Shakedown Street” throwdown.

Sunshine Garcia-Becker @ GOTV ’11
By Jay Blakesberg
The second set of this show will be remembered for its uncompromising pace. On its surface, the combined tempos were slow but there was real internal combustion driving the gorgeous “Weather Report Suite” opener and ensemble sung “He’s Gone”. I give real props to whoever crafted this setlist (still a bit of a mystery in the Furthur world) for its Sunday evening silkiness. “He’s Gone” drifted from major key cascades to a blues wail into a gnarled, propulsive interlude (with strong “Other One” teases) that brilliantly found its way to the centerpiece of the set, “Dark Star”. I love the vocal arrangement these guys have adopted on this tune, with Phil, Bob, and JK alternating lines on the verse, and then everyone, including Jeff Pherson and Sunshine coming in for the “shall we go...” chorus. “Dark Star” became confidently unhinged within seconds of the first chorus and stayed that way for 20-plus creepy minutes. For these guys to be listening and risking at this level on the third show of a tour was a joy to behold. As that incredibly varied excursion settled into silence, and the moon rose over the Atlantic Ocean behind the stage, Phil counted in “Unbroken Chain”, concluding the most boldly experimental sequence of music I’ve ever heard Furthur play.

07.23.11 :: Mann Center :: Philadelphia, PA

Furthur @ GOTV ’11 by Jay Blakesberg
I loved driving into the sprawling, wooded grounds of the Mann Center with the scene in full swing. After a stroll through Shakedown, we decided to go in early, which turned out to be a wise choice as thousands missed much of the excellent first set getting through the overly thorough security detail. The Mann has a vaulted, wooden ceiling over the pavilion which I suspected would lend itself to excellent acoustics. This turned out to be the case, as the band came out and charged through the unexpected one-two of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” and “Greatest Story,” the latter including an extended jam. I was thrilled to hear my first “High On A Mountain,” a Furthur original that could have been lifted off of Aoxomoxoa, with its regal choruses. The “Masterpiece” that followed began at what seemed to be a dangerously slow tempo (almost suggesting “Brokedown Palace” at first) but built to a wonderfully patient and hot conclusion. To the audience’s delight, it also included the not oft-played bridge - “Sailing ‘round the world in a dirty gondola/ Oh to be back in the land of Coca-Cola”. The much anticipated “Rueben and Cherise,” sung and played excellently by JK, was given a “Terrapin”-esque jam treatment in the last few minutes that derailed its energy and seemed to throw JK off for what would ordinarily be a show stopping “Loser”. “The Last Time” and a joyous in-the-round “Quinn the Eskimo” wrapped up a fairly short but extremely satisfying first set.

Furthur @ GOTV ’11 by Jay Blakesberg
The setlist for round two of this show truly does tell the story in the best possible way. The punch and party of “Shakedown >Women are Smarter” could not be denied. Talk about giving the folks what they want! I even spied some glow stick action - a first for me at Furthur. “Any Road,” an excellent George Harrison cover that could easily be mistaken for a Robert Hunter tune, generated some serious heat and continued the great flow of this set. The meat of the crisply delivered next sequence, “Playing > Help > Slip > Franklin’s > Playing Reprise” just flew by, though I’d guess it lasted for 40 minutes or so. Bobby truly owned “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”; no real surprise given the versions I’ve heard over the last year. He expertly handled the emotional depth and darkness of one of the oldest tunes in the Grateful Dead repertoire, moving from a whisper to a chilling scream. And instead of the forgone “One More Saturday Night” for an encore, the band brought the house down with Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” before then dropping into a rowdy “Saturday Night”. Listening to thousands of Deadheads singing “I love the love that I’ve found” was an inspiring ending to one hell of a show, and the perfect way for me to bid goodnight to my favorite new venue.

A Few Production Oriented Notes

Phil Lesh @ GOTV ’11
By Jay Blakesberg
Furthur has a new floor-to-ceiling digital screen behind the band that is operated by the lighting engineer. The potential is there for this to be very cool but I found its use at Bethel and Jones Beach to be heavy handed and the imagery to be a bit clichéd and computer generated. By the time of the Mann Center shows it appeared some suggestions might have been delivered, as it wasn’t fully deployed until the middle of the first set, allowing the show to ramp up before a full onslaught of psychedelia. The lighting rig itself appears to be very economical, but as with the screen, the twenty or so lights were used to greater effect as the tour went on, often in great concert with the projections.

Sound-wise, Furthur, like the Grateful Dead, is on the cutting edge of PA clarity and punch. I had no complaints about the sound at any of the shows I saw, even with the continuing tradition of the show gradually gaining volume as the night progressed. The front of house engineer took some huge liberties at times that I found fascinating and trippy. At moments, he would seemingly create a duet between Bob and Phil, where there two muscular rhythmic voices would be the clearly highlighted sonic elements, even over JK’s lead guitar. This same approach was occasionally applied during Chimenti’s solos, when his closest ally in the band is Joe Russo, who’s got his back at every turn.

One minor gripe is with the videography. I’m not sure if these guys are using a local crew for the screens, but either way, the folks operating the cameras need to be instructed on how to cut from player to player onstage at the appropriate times. Merely focusing on Bob and Phil became comical while JK or Jeff played their hearts out!

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[Published on: 8/5/11]

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