Photo by Dino Perrucci from earlier ths year

Opening night of a tour is always a bit of a wild card – the band can be well-rested and ready to roar, or jittery and out of sync. In the case of the opening night of Furthur’s fall 2011 tour at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, NH, having a little time off from their summer tour paid big dividends as Bob Weir, Phil Lesh & co. delivered roughly three hours of tightly played Grateful Dead and R&B classics that still showcased their world-famous improvisational jamming skills.

The night began with the familiar intro to “Playin’ in the Band,” which immediately brought roars of approval and recognition from the audience. Bob Weir’s vocals were strong and clear from the opening lines of the song throughout the evening, showing none of the hoarseness that affected his singing during Furthur’s previous New England stop in Mansfield, MA this past July. The group as a whole also immediately displayed a precision and unity in their playing which has not always been evident at past shows.

The song wove into a jam that effortlessly led to another fan favorite, “Cold Rain and Snow,” played at the slower tempo the Dead and Furthur have generally preferred live over the faster version found on the first Grateful Dead album. Lead guitarist John Kadlicek took one of his few lead vocal turns of the night and brought out the weariness of the lyrics without sacrificing any energy.

The first set continued at a mostly mid-tempo pace through the Neal Cassady ode “Cassidy” and the unreleased-on-album “Lazy River Road,” which brought a huge ovation from the crowd when Phil Lesh took a lead vocal turn on the second half of the song. That led to another Lesh-sung number, the blues-tinged “Pride of Cucamonga.” Furthur followed with a detour to the New Orleans funk of the Jerry Garcia Band favorite “Catfish John” (with impressive boogie woogie piano from keyboardist Jeff Chimenti), and then sped things up with a driving “Bertha” and a spirited set-closing cover of R&B classic “Good Lovin’.”

The second set continued the funk/R&B vibe evidenced toward the end of the first set with a powerhouse version of “Shakedown Street” which got everyone who had sat down during the set break instantly to their feet. Other crowd-pleasers such as “Jack Straw” and “Bird Song” came after, with the band maintaining the clear enthusiasm and solid playing of the first set. Other second set highlights included an electric “The Wheel,” a brief, crashing drum solo from Joe Russo that led into a Southern rock-style jam similar to one the band played in Mansfield in July, and a cover of “Gimme Some Lovin’” that did Steve Winwood proud.

Furthur may very well have saved the best for last, an extended version of “Uncle John’s Band” with some serious psychedelic jamming from all the musicians and lead vocals performed as a duet by Weir and Lesh. The song then led into a surprise reprise of “Playin’ in the Band” which brought the show full circle and closed the set. “Ripple” served as a satisfying encore that helped bring the energy level down as the show closed.

Judging by this performance, Furthur is clearly maturing and gelling as a band and the “newcomers” are gaining comfort and familiarity with the Grateful Dead vets. It will be interesting to see how the fall 2011 tour progresses and what may lie ahead beyond that.