By: Garrin Benfield
Furthur :: 12.31.11 :: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
It's taken me several weeks to wrap my head around Furthur's marathon New Year's eve show at the Bill Graham Civic in San Francisco. The epic three set show took on a dream-like quality even while it was still in progress. I flew into SFO from New York City, where I had just seen the middle two nights of Phish at the Garden, just in time to change clothes and head to the venue for the ultimate hippie high-holiday celebration. I'll admit to some reservations that the band might be worn out after two previous nights at their hometown hall, and might be rusty after considerable time off. Happily, this show will be remembered not for ennui but for five hours of sparkling jams that borrowed liberally from all eras of the Grateful Dead's career, and suggested that the overtime round we've found ourselves in is in full swing and shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.
|Furthur : 12.31.11 : by Josh Miller|
The band ambled on stage to a full house and broke into the Haight Ashbury's ultimate party incantation, "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)". Phil, already hungrily prowling through the low end, seemed to nudge JK's first few solos into early peaks. "Cosmic Charlie" was the perfect late 60s compliment to this opener, and instantly moved the set into darker, trippier territory. The bridge sections of this tune are amongst the early Dead's most progressive, unclassifiable compositions, and on this night, the sentiment, "Go on home, your Momma's calling you," took on an almost taunting quality between the band and the audience, still settling in to the cavernous room.
"Althea" was greeted warmly, but was marred by an almost comical amount of uncontrolled feedback coming from Bobby's guitar. JK delayed the vocal intro as long as he could, but finally stepped up to the mic and began in earnest. The feedback persisted and actually seemed like it might derail the whole song until Jeff Chimenti's first piano solo of the night rescued the whole endeavor. "You know this space is getting hot" took on a new, somewhat agitated meaning, and was met with an even greater roar of approval by the crowd who were clearly rooting for the band, insisting this not turn into one of those evenings where Bob spends the whole show glaring at his gear.
|Phil Lesh : 12.31.11 : by Josh Miller|
The first totally unexpected song of the night was Weir's admirable stab at "Next Time You See Me", a song most people associate with Pigpen's tenure with the Grateful Dead that perhaps was on the band's mind because of the recently released remastered Europe '72 box set. The unquestionable emotional centerpiece of the first set, though, was a gorgeous "High Time", sung with genuine emotion by JK and delivered by the whole band with an "Attics of My Life" kind of emotional gravity. "High Time" also highlighted for the first time the amount of work this band has devoted to effective vocal arrangements. A perfectly placed "Shakedown Street" reignited the New Year's vibe, and was once again enlivened by Chimenti's slinky Rhodes work and a pounding piano solo. The dissonant ending note of "Shakedown" signaled the beginning of another 60s staple that has become a signature jam vehicle for Furthur, "Viola Lee Blues". Phil was the first member of the Grateful Dead to resurrect this song after Jerry's death, and his dedication and loyalty to the old repertoire, or "the canon" as he might call it, has resulted in a complete modernization of "Viola Lee". This standalone version showcased the most expansive jamming of the night so far, and thrust the room into what seemed like the middle of the show. Kadelecik dug into some Hendrixian tones, coaxing squeals, wails, and sirens out of his axe. A chunky, satisfying end to an eventful first set.
After a shorter than normal break, JK counted off a game changing and completely unexpected "Morning Dew" second set opener. One of the most intriguing things about a long, three set show is not knowing how the evening will be paced, and it's safe to say not many expected this degree of seriousness at the outset of the second set. This "Dew" included both the laconic quiet passage reminiscent of 1974 and the fire and fury of a late 80's crescendo. The band then moved into one of those indescribably Grateful Dead types of improvisation where all five instrumentalists are chugging along, each playing distinct, concurrent lines, and stayed there for a good five minutes before finally falling into "Dark Star". Furthur's arrangement of "Dark Star", while to some may seem overly organized for a song whose ethic suggests total freedom, to my ears is profoundly psychedelic and harkens back to the majesty of the Aoxomoxoa aesthetic. Phil's voice in particular, shrouded in reverb, reminded me seriously of some of the sounds in the nitrous oxide epic "What's Become of the Baby". And with all five singers contributing, the "shall we go while we can…" refrain has a newly anthemic quality.
|John Kadlecik: 12.31.11 : by Josh Miller|
Characteristic of other recent "Dark Stars", Joe Russo relentlessly pushed the tempo of the jam away from the spacey versions of the past and into a satisfyingly frenetic direction that really has no easy analogue in popular music. The bright tempo served the transition into "Mason's Children" well, and propelled another searing full band exploration that eventually found its way back, in inimitable Dead fashion, to the second verse of "Dark Star". "Mountain Song", the most well received Furthur original, perhaps partially because it is so consistently delivered, again did not disappoint. The song also has a fascinating back story and multiple authors, lending a certain mythology to its genesis. It also has a coda that was built to transition into "I Know You Rider", a path the band wisely chose to follow on this celebratory night. "Rider" was joyous, measured and mature, imbued with the kind of wisdom that can only be gained after hundreds, if not thousands of performances. With the whole crowd singing along, and the huge Phil bass bomb that concluded the tune, this could have easily ended this set. Amazingly, instead the band played fully realized versions of "St. Stephen" and "Fire on the Mountain" before taking a break. There was not one half assed, phoned in moment in the whole pre-New Year’s set. Looks of early exhaustion and gratitude filled the room.
About twenty minutes into the next break, thunder claps began emanating from the quadraphonic PA, creating an eerie sound collage as folks made their way back into the hall, which already had the look of having gone through a whole show. As the lights dimmed, a cacophonous, 20th century classical piece created a foreboding vibe, and an enormous dragon that had been hidden behind some black tarp on the roof of the hall was revealed and began slowly moving to meet a woman who somewhat magically rose up from the floor. When she climbed on the dragon's back, The Rolling Stone's "Start Me Up" came booming over the PA. The whole thing was completely strange, disorienting, and beautiful - my favorite post Bill Graham New Years moment for sure. The dragon made its way above the stage, allowed the girl to disembark (where she was met by Bill "Father Time" Walton and other costumed participants), and the New Year’s countdown somewhat abruptly lurched us forward into 2012! As balloons fell, the band went straight into -- what else -- "Sugar Magnolia". Despite some heartily cheered lyrical lapses, it was a well developed version, and it really is the New Year's tune. Bobby's count off into "Playin' in the Band" was unfortunately halted by Phil for some reason, so there was a bit of an ill-timed pause after the big party moment, but eventually "Playin" took off and bled into "Uncle John's Band". The dragon, with glowing red eyes, remained perched high above the stage for the rest of the show, between two illuminated white globes festooned with the GD lightning bolt, and periodically breathed out billowing clouds of steam. It really was a gorgeous sight.
|Furthur : 12.31.11 : by Josh Miller|
"Colors of the Rain", a new Phil composition, was a late show risk that I appreciated as a breather moment as the show moved into its concluding stretch. After a brief detour into the Anthem of the Sun nugget "Born Cross Eyed", with its Spanish jam intimations, "The Wheel" brought the whole room back together. Sure, the band was starting to show a little wear at this point, but so was the audience. After a splintered outro jam from "The Wheel", "Playin' Reprise" occupied the parenthetical role it has so many times over the years and gently concluded the third set. Phil and Bob looked at each other and gracefully tagged "Playin'" with the kind of detailed intention that really ended the evening in a satisfying way. Phil returned, and alone in the spotlight, delivered an especially poignant "donor rap" that had the whole room simultaneously amazed that we were all together again, ushering in another year. And when he somewhat casually said, "I think we have one more for you", no one expected the entire "Terrapin Station Suite" to unfold in all its 25 minute glory. But that's the kind of night it was. The encore was a half an hour. We must be dreaming.
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