The long strange trip continues. Furthur – the Grateful Dead-afterlife project led by the latter band’s busiest touring survivors, bassist Phil Lesh and singer-guitarist Bob Weir – opened the first night, April 9th, of their eight-show stand at New York’s Beacon Theater with a promise kept, “The Music Never Stopped,” from the Dead’s 1975 album, Blues for Allah, and continued with a song about the communal joys of keepin’ on keepin’ on, the 1969 Aoxomoxoa curiosity “Doin’ That Rag.” In both cases, Lesh’s firm gulping tone and walking-rhythm progressions were the dynamic center of the music, a role he played with concentration and smiles – looking up, delighted, at the rest of the band – all night.
Weir’s rhythm guitar work is still one of the great eccentricities in rock – a drive that comes in chunks of chords and splintered riffing – and guitarist John Kadlecik, in what can only be called the son-of-Jerry Garcia spot, plays an accurate fantasia that is just the right side of mimicry, a wise vigorous balance of his own harder-rock bite and focus and the Great Spirit’s sunlit-treble roaming. (Kadlecik knows his scriptures; he co-founded the Dead repertory group the Dark Star Orchestra). But for at least this evening, Lesh, 72, appeared to be the keenest kid in the combo, stepping up to his mike way ahead of the harmony choruses, as if he couldn’t wait to exclaim, as Furthur did in the second set, “Here Comes Sunshine.”
The highlights of the first set were tucked away in the details of songs that Furthur – which includes keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, drummer Joe Russo and singers Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson – seem to keep in steady rotation. Weir, at 64, actually looks older than Lesh, thanks to the 19th Century-admiral’s moustache that comes with his full gray beard, but sounded beautifully wounded and boy-ish in “Looks Like Rain,” from his 1972 solo album, Ace. Chimenti noted the band that originally cut “Good Lovin'” – the Young Rascals – with a meaty organ solo in the manner of the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, and “Cassidy” had a wide-ranging mid-section that included a jazz-swing stretch and a three-way telegraphic exchange between Lesh and the two guitarists that would have suggested one of those Dead flights in “Space” if Russo hadn’t been there with the gravity, emphatically snapping a stick on his snare rim.
Back to 1968
The second set started with specific retrospection, a long first burst through 1968’s Anthem of the Sun – arguably the Dead’s most lysergic album and, with its integration of live tapes and studio manipulation, the first on which they recognized the primacy of their stage gifts. Furthur actually began over on Side Two, with “Alligator,” then veered around to the flipside – “Cryptical Envelopment” and “The Other One,” the latter getting great liftoff from Lesh’s grunting riff – as if they were playing the album in reverse. The Dylan interlude was the right vintage too: “All Along the Watchtower,” rendered as a mix of the bard’s pneumatically-strummed original and the rain of guitars on Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 hit single.
The rest of the set ended front-to-back as well, with the opening trilogy on Blues for Allah. But the roll into “Help on the Way” came over a Wake of the Flood bridge, that gorgeous “Here Comes Sunshine,” and there was a sudden drop, out of a generously distended “Slipknot!”, into the Garcia-Robert Hunter ballad “Comes a Time,” from Garcia’s 1976 album, Reflections. Despite their ritualistic celebration of the live-Dead experience, Furthur never lose their capacity for surprise. They have too many winding and beguiling ways to reach even the inevitable. In this case, “Franklin’s Tower,” it was out of the slow grace of that Garcia-Hunter beauty, through a sizzling swing-band jam and another rubbery, sparkling tangle of “Slipknot!”. When the band eventually hit that welcome gallop, it felt both like mischievously delayed pleasure and perfect timing.
There are tradeoffs in Furthur’s living-Dead mission. Weir’s band, Ratdog, played more covers; Lesh, in his touring groups, drew heavily on songs written by or associated with his collaborators, such as Warren Haynes and Chris Robinson. But this is a trip that sounds far from done. There is a week-and-change to go in the Beacon run – and many more miles after that.