“Furthur,” read the destination sign over the windshield of Ken Kesey’s psychedelically painted school bus in the 1960s. Now it’s name of the band who carry the mantle of the Grateful Dead, who were the house band for the novelist’s celebrated Acid Tests. Founding members Bob Weir on rhythm guitar and Phil Lesh on bass are Furthur’s linchpin, joined by longtime Dark Star Orchestra lead guitarist John Kadlecik, drummer Joe Russo, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and backup vocalists Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson. Of all the efforts to recreate the Dead’s signature sound I’ve heard since Jerry Garcia’s passing, this was the best. Despite the quality of the group Weir and Lesh have gathered, though, their show at the Times Union Center last Tuesday night got off to an exasperatingly monotonous start.
Hitting the stage a hair after 7 PM, the band led off with “Here Comes Sunshine.” The mid-tempo groove was tight, the sound was fine, and Kadlecik’s guitar captured much of Jerry Garcia’s eerie, shimmering melodic mannerisms. But where Garcia had, on his better nights, played with brilliance and abandon, Kadlecik seemed tentative and tame. Joe Russo’s drumming was vigorous, and the addition of the backup singers added depth to the vocals. “Sunshine” segued into “Row Jimmy,” to which Chimenti, a killer player, added a gorgeous keyboard solo with rippling treble lines echoed by rolling basses.
With “Big Bad Blues,” a new tune by Weir and Robert Hunter on the eternal Grateful Dead theme of games of chance, the show bogged down. By now the first three songs had used the same laid-back andante groove. OK, so how about a peppy blues shuffle, a fast two-step country pulse, or even a Bo Diddley beat for the next one?
Nope. Unbelievably, “Magnolia Mountain” had the same pace and that became downright oppressive. Tempo freeze finally ended at 7:43. After that, Furthur were a ball. In the remainder of the first set, Weir, in good voice, sang lead on the Dead’s reworking of Gus Cannon’s jug-band tune “Minglewood Blues, which they delivered as a trudging blues stomp. “Dire Wolf,” an implausible song about a card-playing member of an extinct lupine species who chomps down a trusting soul, featured a spot-on country-flavored solo from Kadlecik.
In the second set, during the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” the band stuck closely to the original, allowing Kadlecik only a brief jam on the chords to “sun, sun, sun, here it comes.” And their version of “All Along the Watchtower” couldn’t match what Jimi Hendrix did with it; Kadlecik’s solo was too busy where Hendrix’s was majestic. They encored with “Not Fade Away” and a sweet, gospel-tinged “Brokedown Palace.”
Note: This is my final concert review as a Capital Region resident, as I’m relocating to Maine in a few days. Covering so much of the great roots music performed here in recent years has been big fun, and for this opportunity I thank my editors at Metroland. To top it all off, because my first live critique was Phil and Friends five years back, this last review of Furthur is apt indeed. Call it a simple twist of fate. Ciao.