Words by: Dean Smith
Furthur :: 07.17.12 :: Charter One Pavilion :: Chicago, IL
With temperatures well into the hundreds, I walked along the shores of Lake Michigan searching for Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island where Furthur was set to play the penultimate show of their 2012 summer tour. I couldn’t find it on the map, but quickly recognized the familiar Deadhead scene unfolding near Soldier Field where the Grateful Dead performed their last concert. Northerly Island has a magical ring to it-like something from the "Game of Thrones" or an imaginary place where Reuben and Cherise vacationed in the summers as part of the larger province of Terrapin Station.
Nearly a month after a Soldier Field show in early July of 1995, Jerry Garcia died unexpectedly. I’ve been watching him perform “So Many Roads” from the last show repeatedly on YouTube as it reveals the aging rock star, with an uncanny sense of what is coming, saying goodbye.
Scalping into the packed venue to hear the delightful opening chords of what transformed into a sultry version of “Here Comes Sunshine,” I quickly realized that Furthur was up to something new and exciting musically. They are equally unpredictable as the original band, and in some ways, more fun.
John Kadlecik, a kind of “Jerry action figure” played the song with confidence and sophistication, suggesting that he has more than earned his chops with this band. I’ve seen his previous work with Dark Star Orchestra and have long found him to be a worthy steward of the Dead legacy complete with a haunting voice that sounds like the late nine-fingered maestro. Kadlecik dueled continuously with Bob Weir through the night, wizened mentor and the protégé jousting and sparring—with Phil Lesh joining the fray. Toy Jerry’s gravelly vocal landed somewhere between Weir and Garcia, rendering this rarely played gem anew.
After sturdy versions “Half-Step” and “Cumberland Blues,” Weir took center stage and delivered a mellow but strong “Cassidy.”
“I like their ‘Cassidy’ better than the Grateful Dead’s,” said Tony, a thirty-something software developer from Chicago. “I would have given my left arm to see the band, just once.”
The most interesting moment in the first set came after “Cassidy” when Kadlecik tossed out the opening riff to “Brown-eyed Woman.” He was shrugged off quickly by Weir, who came to play on this night under an electric blue sky. Dressed in a sleeveless vest that exposed his muscular arms, cut-offs and sporting his signature “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” beard, he promptly took over the reins.
The Warlocks co-founder countered with “Doin’ that Rag,” “Lost Sailor,” and “Saint of Circumstance” which carried us to the break, and he wasn’t finished. With a nod to Albert Camus, Weir launched into “Feel Like a Stranger,” followed by a fierce “Passenger.” His jangling and distinctive rhythm guitar shifted speeds and built momentum, making this one a much better choice than “Hell in a Bucket.”
Midway through the second set, Phil Lesh took the show to another dimension. On the last note of the American Beauty staple "Truckin'", the statuesque bassist leaned forward to finish it off with an emphatic note that he extended for five seconds before launching the band into an entertaining and improvisational “Viola Lee Blues.” In the middle verses, Jeff Chimenti’s piano sped up this classic extended jam, creating a rockabilly version that was close to the theme from the Batman television show. The song was made new again with a freshness that showcased a stable of talented performers in addition to Weir, Kadlecik and Lesh. Chimenti added some nuanced phrasing that morphed from jazz piano to rock-and-roll, and Joe Russo’s drums thundered through the early parts of the song.
Then Lesh surprised us again, belting out “Mountains of the Moon” with a timeless and soulful voice, suggesting that the music will never stop despite his advancing years. The intricate song, rife with references to Edgar Allan Poe, nursery rhymes, and an obscure banjo player was only played 10 times by the Grateful Dead--all in 1969.
Kadlecik came back strong with a substantial “Morning Dew” at his own pace,
delivering an immaculate vocal and some expansive staccato solos on his guitar. Weir
and Lesh joined in for a tremendous crescendo as Chimenti’s piano screamed in agony
before the ending.
The last song, “Attics of My Life” accented the band’s vocal range, one of
Furthur’s greatest strengths. Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson added a far reaching range
to the distinctive voices of Kadlecik, Weir, and Lesh. They harmonized beautifully on
vocals all night, like Jehovah’s favorite choir--rocking us to sleep to one day return again.
What sets Furthur apart from other attempts to assemble the remaining Grateful Dead members after Jerry’s passing is not only their willingness to experiment and dig deep into the rich canon of songs like “Sunshine,” “Passenger,” “Viola Lee Blues,” “Mountains of the Moon,” and “Attics of My Life” -- but also to play them in interesting and distinctive ways while enjoying every moment.
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