Sure, we can continue to wonder why Mickey and Billy aren’t a part of the lineup. But after the New Year’s run, the truth is, finding a fan in attendance who questions the potential of Furthur will be tough. The sound has blossomed, the band members are playing more cohesively and everyone seems to be having a real good time. I saw the first three Oakland shows in September, felt some magic (“Althea”), but left thinking about the “potential” that most Heads were discussing. Yeah, we got some strong setlists for those 3 shows, but truth be told, after watching and feeling the pursuits of the Dead Summer Tour last May, you could tell you were watching a new band in Oakland. This wasn’t the case in San Francisco.
Jumping out of a cab on the 30th, I quickly felt a sense of warmth as the whole square outside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was packed with Heads. Since my last Furthur shows in Oakland, it seemed people were less focused on the question of whether the group members had figured out their flow. Meanwhile, guitarist John Kadlecik, who has left Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) and signed on to the Furthur project for the near future, played these past two shows with much more confidence. Drummer Joe Russo, the other main new member, continued to offer deep notes on the drums. Teamed with percussionist Jay Lane (RatDog), the two brought their own energy to bear. Sure, some listeners will tell you there are a few drums missing from Mickey’s kit but all you need to do is check out the “King Solomon’s Marbles” from the first night to see what this new tandem can offer. There were also two other new faces on board for these shows: Zoe Ellis and Sunshine Garcia Becker, who added fine female voices to several tunes as well as a little vibe from Jerry. Jeff Chimenti continued to light up the keys as he’s done in RatDog and the Dead, and Phil and Bobby are, well, Phil and Bobby and it’s nothing short of amazing to be able to ring in another New Years with them.
Set one from the 30th was no warm up. You could tell these guys had been rehearsing. Tight as a touring band should be, a mellow, funky jam abruptly stopped and yielded the shared vocals of “Here Comes the Sunshine.” This rarely played gem flowed right into a high energy “Bertha.” Kadlecik had taken the lead on “Here Comes the Sunshine” and as he belted out the first few lines to “Bertha” it was clear the singing duties were going to be shared more than they were in Oakland. A pause after “Bertha” brought us into our first Bobby-led tune of the night, “Promised Land.” The crowd responded and the energy of the Civic Auditorium continued through “Mississippi Half Step” which segued into what turned out to the song that was most talked about the following night. “Deep Elem Blues” has held a special place in Dead World since the acoustic shows of the early 80’s. However, this wasn’t the bluegrass-infused version most of us had become accustomed to. It was a more danceable groovy rendition. Weir’s linked “Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance” came next and left everyone thinking that set one had come to close but instead Furthur decided to bust a swirling “Cosmic Charlie” to send us to set break.
There would only be one breather during the second set. From the short but spicy version of “Playing in the Band,” Furthur segued into a terrific “Eyes of the World” that went straight into a huge “Scarlet>Fire.” Besides “Deep Elem,” “Eyes” was definitely a highlight of the show as Chimenti let it rip for several minutes while Kadlecik seemed to keep looking at him wondering when it would be his turn to solo. At one point the whole band was looking Jeff’s way, but he just kept going on through an amazing solo that finally led into John’s soaring take on this Garcia masterpiece. A solid “Scarlet Begonias”> “Fire on the Mountain” tandem then gave way to a quick “Drums” that took the form of a duel before quickly morphing into a song Phil and Booby seemed to have rediscovered in the last year: “King Solomon’s Marbles.” A real treat for the seasoned listener, and a great jam at the show, the end of “King Solomon’s” gave us our only break of the set. The lights then turned lilac for Phil’s epic “Unbroken Chain,” where instead of Jeff or John taking lead, it became a group effort, continuing on for several rotations and delivering a loud roar from the crowd when the jam folded back into the familiar structure of the song. Without skipping a beat, the overhead screen changed its form to look like a moon, and here instead of John continuing to sing the songs Jerry Garcia had traditionally done with the Grateful Dead, Bobby took on “Standing on the Moon.” The set then concluded with a move from “China Cat Sunflower” into ‘I Know You Rider,” where Phil was visibly shaking with excitement after singing the line, “I’d shine my light through the, cool Colorado rain.”
After Phil reminded us to all be organ donors, the beginning notes to “Lady with a Fan” followed. Kadlecik really played the part here, honoring the majesty of Jerry’s masterpiece, which flowed right into “Terrapin Station” and never let up, bringing a special show to its conclusion.
The party vibe was alive the next night. Balloons were hanging from the rafters and there was a noticeable change in decor as many of Deadheads were dressed up as if it were Halloween. It seemed that the band was taking its sweet time coming out but when it did it delivered a big, funked out version of “Shakedown” that could’ve easily been plucked from a show in ’79 or ’80. The band took a brief pause and then collected itself to share Bobby’s “Jack Straw.” This was no mellow, take-a-break rendition of the tune although Bobby kept going back and forth between his microphone and his monitors. Next up was “Mama Tried” and like “Deep Elem” the night before, Furthur put its own twist on it. A decent “Candyman” came next with John hitting the high notes, followed by a not so tight “Loose Lucy,” which was quickly forgotten with the initial note to “Viola Lee Blues.” Everyone in attendance seemed to feel the vibration that came through the speakers during that one note. Including a great improvisational section, “Viola Lee” was wonderfully executed. “Truckin’” sent us to setbreak and the reminders of the Long Strange Trip were vivid throughout the Bill Graham.
I have to admit, even though the New Year’s theatrics were spot on, festive and hopeful, and the third set contained some very memorable playing, the second set was my favorite of all 5 from the run. Furthur dropped right into it with a loud, tight, solidly-played “Help on the Way>Slipknot> Franklins.” This enormous trilogy was followed by “Cassidy” and one of those moments that almost 15 years after the end, a concertgoer could still feel what it was like to be at a Grateful Dead show. “The Wheel” came next and segued into spacey jam that saw the band trading notes and chord changes that eventually organized itself via Phil’s ever so slightly plucking bass line. “Dark Star” made sense. It was a beautifully delivered version in which Phil, Bob, then John shared each of three lines in verse one. A psychedelic jam followed with the screen behind the band mimicking what it looks like to drive through a snow storm.
Just as “Dark Star” seemed to be finishing up, things got a little stranger as it seemed like we were being taken back into another space-type jam. The band hadn’t stopped and there almost seemed to be a ticking like a clock. I looked over at my friends to ask if it was close to midnight. It was only 11:15 though, and what I heard sounded like the beginning to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Sure enough, the clock going off confirmed that band was about to drop the uber classic Floyd tune “Time”. It was a great song for the occasion and a great song in general, but how it was played was the most important part. Phil took the vocals, Russo hit every beat in the opening drums, the ladies made their gorgeous voices heard, and John did David Gilmore justice. I have listened to Dark Side more times than I care to admit. I have the guitar lines sewn into my memory and John didn’t miss a lick. “Time” then rolled into what became a sing-along of “Uncle John’s Band” complete with the rocked-out ending reminiscent of the late 80’s before Furthur performed a fitting last song of 2009: J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight.” Here the energy that Kadlecik brings to the stage was definitely on display as he wailed over and over before bringing it back together for the end of the set.
We only had 20 minutes or so before midnight, so we rushed out for some water before welcoming 2010. I think it’s great that there are speakers out in the hallway at the Bill Graham like the Grateful Dead had at their New Year’s Eve shows in years past. It’s funny how many still find their way to dance out there, but it’s just another special ingredient to what makes this New Years party so unique.
As the lights went off for the countdown, a weird black box I had noticed behind the tapers earlier in the night opened up in a cloud of smoke. The Beatles “All You Need is Love” began blasting over the PA as “Baby New Year” was standing atop a huge skull. The skull flew through the crowd as people embraced the message of the song and what the band was trying to achieve with its welcome to 2010. As the skull landed on stage we all joined in the countdown as balloons dropped, smiles and kisses were shared, and the band charged into its third set of the night.
Starting the decade off with “Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion” was a good choice as it had everyone dancing and thinking of the roads we’ll all travel in 2010. “Let it Grow,” which was also a highlight from the Oakland run came next. The ending was nailed and went right into a “Cryptical Envelopment” that instead of bleeding into “The Other One” went into “Born Cross-Eyed”. This move then set up Phil to drop the huge first notes of “Other One.” He obviously enjoyed leading the band into the departure point on this tune, eventually finishing the “Cryptical” after “The Other One.” A poignant moment followed with “So Many Roads,” the definitive late-era Jerry ballad. This was definitely the most beautiful moment of the two night stand and also a sign that Phil and Bob believe John can handle the catalogue. A rocking “St. Steven>Eleven” brought everyone back to a frenzy before “Not Fade Away” brought the set to a close.
As the band left the stage, the audience maintained the tradition of singing the line, “Know our love will not fade away” while clapping in beat. Phil then came back out to say Happy New Year and remind us again about the importance of being an organ donor. Furthur then sent us into the night with a party version of “Sugar Magnolia” with Bobby in fine, exuberant form letting us know that in taking things Furthur, the spirit of the Dead endures.