Furthur Festival | 05.28-05.30 | California

By: Garrin Benfield

Furthur Festival :: 05.28.10-05.30.10 :: Calaveras County Fairgrounds :: Angel’s Camp, CA

Phil & Bobby by Susan J. Weiand
Arriving at the site of the Furthur Festival, I wondered why it had been so long since the previous Mt. Aire gathering. The setting is classic Northern California – rolling golden hills punctuated by groves of oak trees, miles of free form campgrounds, and a lovely grass concert bowl. Clearly the one narrow, congested road into the grounds could be a major temporary inconvenience to local residents, but it seems the revenue generated by this mostly supremely mellow, polite crowd would easily offset any frustrations. Once inside, things mostly ran like clockwork, and the 10,000 or so gathered were treated to an intimate, bucolic weekend of rock ‘n’ roll.

Perhaps as a nod to those who thought the notion of Furthur announcing it would perform six Grateful Dead records a bit, shall we say, antithetical to the Dead ethos, the first night’s “sound check” featured a circuitous setlist heavy on classics but not tied to any particular era. An inspired “Eleven” opener gave way to one hell of a set that was dialed in from the get-go. I was struck right away by the detail of the mix that allowed every instrumental voice to be heard with clarity and volume. As a full moon rose over the early arriving crowd, the band patiently made it’s way through a full one-set show, clearly surprising many who were not sure what to expect from this first evening. Personal highlights for me included John Kadelecik quoting Trey’s “First Tube” during a heavy “Let It Grow” and Bobby delivering a stately “Standing On The Moon,” proving the old adage that “if at first one does not succeed…” Satiated, we all slowly made our way back to the campgrounds, which were still springing to life in the chilly darkness.

Dan Bern
On Saturday, I wandered over to the Acoustic Stage and caught a beautiful set by Mark Karan and Friends. While I was there they played an assortment of leftfield covers by Townes Van Zandt, Randy Newman and the Dead. I had never seen Karan in this context and he really shone, singing and playing with sensitivity and conviction – a lovely way to ease into the day. On the Sunshine Stage, Dan Bern delivered newer songs with his usual incisive, sardonic wit, backed by his new project, Common Rotation. I’m happy to see Dan on the road again, and especially pleased to have his uncompromising insights floating about the sometimes pollyana-ish jam scene. Next, James Nash, Joe Kyle Jr. and the rest of a temporary Waybacks lineup brought their absolute A-game to the sweltering afternoon, pleasing those perhaps unfamiliar with their own material with masterful versions of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Shady Grove.” These guys are virtuosos with real heart and soul.

What was exciting me most about Furthur’s first “classic albums” sets was the tunes I’d never seen performed live, or in some cases had never seen the light of day at all. Oddly, the first half of the American Beauty set, comprised of songs these guys have played hundred of times, was stiff and a bit rusty. This trend continued into the first rarely performed song, Pigpen’s “Operator,” this time sung tentatively by Phil. Happily things warmed up significantly with JK’s reading of “Candyman” (who can resist “Hand me my old guitar…”) and the rest of the set was a pure joy of monumental pieces from the dead canon, aided by Larry Campbell‘s fiddle and guitar, and his wife Teresa Williams‘ vocals. I think for many who grew up going to or listening to live Dead shows it will always be disorienting to hear “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” in the middle of a set, but “Truckin'” brought it all home with classic slow burn!

The Workingman’s Dead set busted out of the gates with “Uncle John’s Band” and never let up. The band had clearly relaxed, and spent the next hour reveling in more classic tunes that this time benefited from years of having been in the performance repertoire. Larry Campbell’s biting Strat work lent a shimmer to “Cumberland” and everything that followed, without impeding Furthur’s own identity and chemistry from clearly emerging. The Anthem of the Sun set, the most anticipated by many as it represents perhaps the pinnacle of “primal” Grateful Dead, was a monster from top to bottom, climaxing with crushing versions of “Alligator” and “Caution.” I hope the bruising guitar exclamations in “Caution” translate to tape, because, wow, they needed no explanation under the rising moon!

The Mother Hips
I soldiered on and caught sets by three great bands on Sunday prior to Furthur. The biggest surprise discovery of the weekend was the towering psychedelic progressive rock of Carney. Led by a fantastic and charismatic vocalist/guitarist and the most passionate, fiery band I witnessed all weekend, Carney’s music seemed to fall in the Jeff Buckley meets Radiohead universe, a welcome change of pace from the mostly Americana proceedings on the side stages. The always-great Mother Hips were joined on the main stage by Jackie Greene, who proved himself more than able on organ. The Hips designed their set for a gentle afternoon and stuck mostly to their sunny Pacific stylings, save for the odd time changes and riffage of their mid-nineties classic, “Magazine.” I wouldn’t have missed Electric Hot Tuna, who were next up on the main stage, for the world. Stalwarts of blues, garage rock, massive riffs and some of the original diplomats of the Haight-Ashbury, Jorma and Jack have been playing together for 52 years. I was moved not just by their gnarly set, but also by their longevity and by the Dead organization’s insistence on their presence at this Festival. Loyalty does exist in the music business!

Hot Tuna
Initially I thought we were being thrown for a loop when Furthur came out and did not bust into the expected “Help on the Way” to begin their Blues For Allah set. Instead, the band leapt into one of those “same tempo as the next song but in a different key” jams before beginning perhaps the Dead’s most progressive and esoteric collection. “Help > Slip > Franklin” was pretty happening but not earth shattering. Far more moving was the intense detail and thunder of “King Solomon’s Marbles,” which I’d vote for most welcome comeback of the songs Furthur has reintroduced over the last year. “Music Never Stopped” featured some searing runs by JK, and he delivered “Crazy Fingers” beautifully. Weir’s dense but lovely “Sage and Spirit” was saved by Jeff Chimenti, who appeared to be the only person who knew it that well. The “Blues for Allah” suite was a thrill to hear live, but if you want to hear the only (?) other live version, you might be better off checking out One From The Vault, as this well-intentioned attempt was gauzy and confused around the transitional moments. Still, who’s complaining? Standing there watching these guys try this stuff out and letting these songs wash over me was a thrill. Joe Russo really distinguished himself deep in this second night with momentum and focus, as Phil and Bobby seemed to show some wear and tear. There’s more than one reason to hire a young, talented drummer, right?

Jackie Greene
After a wonderfully trippy set break that allowed some of the evening mist to begin seeping into the amphitheater, the band returned and brought us back further in time with a complete performance of Aoxomoxoa, the record that includes perhaps some of the least performed Dead material of all. After a typically awesome “St. Stephen” (though I would argue this might be the most over-performed song of the post-Jerry years), JK segued right into a “Dupree’s” that also featured Larry Campbell on fiddle. For me, the two most significant tunes that followed were Phil’s reading of Jerry’s “Rosemary” and the 11- minute, genuinely psychedelic “What’s Become of the Baby?” which asked the pressing question clearly on everyone’s mind: “Where is the child that played with the sun chimes and chased the cloud sheep to the regions of rhyme?” Teresa Williams’ vocal wails and white gown perfectly embodied the acid-queen-diva-goddess on this excursion. “Cosmic Charlie” brought us home, and almost sadly, to the precipice of the last set of the weekend.

Mark Karan
Despite mild exhaustion setting in, the Terrapin Station set rocked. To segue from the set break music, Radiohead’s In Rainbows to a 14-minute “Estimated Prophet” was perfect. (As a side note, all weekend the house music was very inspired, from Beck at sunset to James Brown and Billy Preston! Yeah!) “Dancin’ in the Streets” was given its full disco treatment (minus the convoluted outro jam of the celebrated ’77 versions), “Passenger” was spot on, and Bobby really rallied for “Samson.” The last awesome surprise was Teresa Williams returning for a song most people in attendance had surely never seen performed, the Jerry-penned Donna Gauchaux showcase “Sunrise.” I felt a real affection in the crowd for this one, a deep track that those of us who spent a few years scouring Dead records before entering the tape trading community remember fondly. Teresa received a real ovation before we glided into the B-side of this record, the entire 26-minute “Terrapin Station” suite. What a way to bring it home!

Sir Joe Russo by Susan J. Weiand
After Phil thanked the crowd for being at our “family picnic,” he generously mentioned all the people who worked so hard to make the festival happen, which received the largest cheer of the weekend, hands down. Deadheads can be a wonderfully gracious bunch. The appreciation was heartfelt, though. The whole weekend had that inescapable quality of people fully absorbing the music, the scene, the memories, the personal connections, and the uniqueness of a phenomenon that is not going to last forever. As I listened to the weave of “Lady with a Fan”, convinced the band had intended this to be a sonic response to the ecological tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, I closed my eyes and said my own thank you. Thanks, San Francisco! Thanks, Grateful Dead! Now what are we gonna do with this energy?

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