When we heard back in mid-December that Furthur was going to be playing the Wang Theater in Boston for two nights in early April we were excited and got tickets to both shows as soon as possible. Since then the excitement just built and built until early April rolled around and the date was actually here.
I’ve gushed (calmly) in other blog posts about how much hearing the band means to me, because of the excellent music they play, because of their place in my mental musical history, because of their status in American musical history, and because seeing them is so much fun. Music can produce deeply felt emotions, more so than any other art form by my experience. And I knew these concerts would be roller-coasters of emotion for me, perhaps producing tears at times and slack-jawed amazement at others, but always producing joy.
Dead/Furthur concerts can be great communal experiences too, and I was glad to hear that my high school friend Fred (with son and friend) would be driving down from Vermont for the Thursday concert and that our son Dave (with friends Ricky and Sam) would be driving out from Ithaca and friends Scott and Michelle would also be coming into town for the Friday concert, as well as Mary and who knows who else!
I left work around 4:30 on Thursday, April 5th and made it to Sarah’s building in Government Center by around 5:10, where we parked in her garage and then ran upstairs to get some lamps that she needed transported; put them in the car and then hurried through the Common towards the Theater District. I was filled with nervous anticipation but we were on time, it was a beautiful early Spring day, and I had the most wonderful feeling of things being in proper alignment.
We had a few extra minutes and so walked back and forth in front of the Wang a bit, where sidewalk sales, grinning people hanging out, and people desperate for tickets were already turning the sidewalk into the particular kind of scene you see at Dead shows. We made it to Jacob Wirth’s a little early for our 6:00 reservation but that was fine with them and we got a table right away. It was a good thing we’d made a reservation because it was already jam-packed in there. By the time we left even more people had squeezed their way in and we could barely get out the door. They only had two waiters working the full dining area and we had to wait for beer, but Fred, Jake, and Cameron soon showed up, we all got beer and ordered food, and the excitement just built and built. We talked about work, and beautiful natural places, and missing friends. But the 800 pound gorilla in the room was that we were about to see Furthur, and the conversation kept circling back to that fact.
Boy it was crowded in Wirth's, but we managed to get done eating, knock down the second round of beers that we were able to get but that came as we should have been leaving, force our way out of there against the crowd, and then walk the block and a half over to the Wang, where the sidewalk scene was at full peak. Got through it and then finally inside, where we split up with the guys (we were sitting in very different parts of the balcony) in the beautiful, ornate lobby. Grabbed beers, climbed the opulent staircase, and found our seats in the 4th row of the left mezzanine where we had a fantastic view of Jeff Chimenti’s keyboard setup, and not at all a bad view of anything else. We gawked at the callipygian forms in the classically posed sculptures and pastoral frescoes that adorned the ceilings, niches, and hallways of the Wang … quite a spectacle.
Furthur hit the stage and lined up a bit differently from when we’d seen them last summer. JeffC was still on the left but the others were all mirror-image different: Bob Weir was still in the middle but Phil Lesh was now far right, in front of a tall stack of speakers and one huge woofer that was almost as tall as he was. He was playing the dark brown six-string he’s favored recently and stayed on that all night. Joe Russo was up behind Bob with his drum kit, which seemed to me to have a couple of extra toms, which we all knew Joe would be able to handle. John Kadlicek was on Bob’s other side, playing his dark wood-grain Strat, and behind him were Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson on vocals.
Bob picked up his unfinished “chicka-chicka” guitar, they tuned up, and then launched right into Playing In the Band and then went into Crazy Fingers. The whole theater was filled with dancing people singing along with every word and waving glow-in-the-dark wands and beads, and the smell of pot started up immediately after the lights went down. We were immediately filled with the emotions I was talking about and as always with the Dead/Furthur, and even more as I’ve been exposed to more and more music, were filled with wonder at the guys’ individual talents and collective musical genius.
Here’s the list for the first set: Playing In the Band > Crazy Fingers, Black Throated Wind, Brown Eyed Women, They Love Each Other, Big Bad Blues, Built To Last, Hell In a Bucket
Here’s a list of my impressions from the first set:
- It’s so delightful the way they’ve arranged their vocals. Sunshine and JeffP back up Bob perfectly, allowing him to sing expressively and then to up the volume when he wants to rock without having to scream. I wonder how long it’s going to be before they let Sunshine and/or Jeff do a lead vocal … maybe in NYC on this tour! Phil didn’t sing as much as he has been, but his parts were perfect and of course he delighted the crowd by singing the “old man” choruses on Brown Eyed Women. John can do some great vocals but has been very spotty to my ear in the shows I’ve heard; here he was great, particularly doing a fine job on They Love Each Other.
- Speaking of John, he knocked me over the first time I heard him and he continues to elevate his game every time I’ve heard him since then. He seems to be taking his role very seriously, as he goddam well should (I can’t imagine the pressure of trying to fill Garcia’s shoes), to be working at it, and to be succeeding. The colors (don’t accuse me of being high, that’s a well-used metaphor in describing music J) and the intonations he gets are brilliant. He’s still not Garcia, but he sure is John Kadlicek and he’s great.
- I think Joe is one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard; he can fill the backbeat but most of the time he’s playing a lead himself. His dominating contribution to King Solomon’s Marbles and to the first part of Dark Star on Friday, not to mention the killer Dark Star intro from Syracuse last Fall (ok, I’m getting ahead and behind myself) was one of those jaw-dropping moments I was talking about.
- And what can you say about JeffC? Great piano players have always amazed me … what’s going through their mind while they’re improvising?? Godchaux had his strengths, especially on the grand piano, but Jeff Chimenti takes the keyboard role in their sound beyond what Keith ever did, not to mention being beyond Pigpen playing the great organ fills (Jeff can do that too with one hand, while with the other he’s freaking out on the high keys), or Tom Constanten on the electric piano and synthesizers (Jeff largely ignored that third of his setup on Thursday but was all over it on Friday).
- Furthur hadn’t toured since New Year’s and they’d obviously rehearsed. As Sam commented, it was clear they’d been in the woodshed and had a bunch of new songs (ok, “new” to this incarnation of the band, even though they had been written long ago (I’ll leave it to Furthur scholars to document the chronology)) and a bunch of tight, new arrangements of things they’d been doing before. In the past I might have been annoyed by this, but they were right on with all of their new stuff; they weren’t just practicing it on us in the first show of the Spring/Summer tour, they were rolling it out and it all worked. The analogy I kept coming back to was that they were opening in Boston before hitting Broadway, as theatrical performers have been doing for years, and all the players and the script were fresh.
- As mentioned, Bob started on his blond wood guitar, but after switching to his old Gibson for They Love Each Other he switched to his black guitar with the lightning marks on it, stepped to the mike, and took over the show. I’m not by inclination a Bobby fan and in the past he’s bored me (for instance, with what I consider some embarrassing attempts to sing blues classics), but when you look at his contributions clinically he’s always leading the band, and at some points he can step out and be fantastic. I can’t believe I’d ever say that Big Bad Blues, Built To Last, and Hell In a Bucket were the best part of anything, but they were fucking amazing, especially the sound he got from that guitar! I can’t believe how stellar that sequence was.
Another thing that needs mentioning is their language and music interpreters. One was at a podium in the front right corner doing frantic ASL to interpret the lyrics and next to him was a dancer showing people what the music was trying to express. They both did excellent jobs and must have been exhausted from the effort!
OK phew, time for the set break and for us all to catch our breaths, hit the bathroom, and then get another beer (the Wang ran out of IPA and we had to settle for lagers … but this is my only criticism of the venue). Deadheads were everywhere, camping out on the carpets, staggering around in a daze, raving about the first set, or all three at once. Funny interlude in the men’s room: we’re waiting in line and two guys next to each other are having a spirited conversation about Furthur as compared to The Dead (the post-Garcia band). They end up at different urinals and one of them is next to me and shouts to his buddy:
- “I was in Worcester twice and it fucking sucked!”
- Me: “Yeah well I was in Worcester three times and I’m never going there again.”
- Guy to my left: “FUCK THAT!! I’ve been in Worcester four times and it was fucking terrible!”
- Much jolliment and confusion ensued.
Struck up some nice conversations with our mezzanine neighbors while we were waiting for the second set. There were lots of security guards hanging around the edges of the theater and they were obviously seeing everything going on but had apparently been told (as they should) that they were not there to stop people from smoking pot or acting weird, they were there to protect the theater and the audience. Sometimes you can’t help but get the impression that we are progressing as a society in spite of ourselves.
OK, time for the second set. They came right out and rocked us with what has become a sine qua non, St. Stephen, and then they delighted the crowd by flying into Cosmic Charlie. Bob did his airplane impression while he sang to us about that world we’ll all be in when our airplanes happen to land.
Second set list: St. Stephen, Cosmic Charlie, Mountain Song, The Wheel > Uncle John’s Band, King Solomon’s Marbles, Black Peter > Shakedown Street, Not Fade Away. Here are some comments on that set:
- I love Mountain Song (which wasn’t done by the GD) and I’d just read a nice article about the genesis of the song on the Furthur site.
- To many people, The Wheel is a personal anthem, and it’s one of those songs that has a spacey introduction but that people can identify as soon as it starts. The guy next to me was a Wheel nut, and was singing along with the chorus, off key, as loudly as he could. I, of course, joined him and we “harmonized” about the Thunder and the Lightning at the top of our lungs, as were most people in the theater. And then they went into Uncle John’s Band. Talk about being in Grateful Dead heaven!
- But then, OMG, they stopped, counted off a few beats, and dove headlong into King Solomon’s Marbles. I gush about Joe above and this was what I’d come there to hear: him and Phil just playing primal music from some jungle beyond imagination with no holds barred. Of course, having Jeff, John, and Bob along for the ride did not hurt the sound. This was arguably one of the best moments of their stand in Boston.
- Not surprising seeing Furthur’s proclivity to shake things up a bit, but after the band finally played a rocker in Not Fade Away (ok, not just a “rocker” but a seminal Buddy Holly/Rolling Stones rocker (this was one of my only times to criticize John, his leads on this were not as solid as you’d want in this song)), the crowd was disappointed that they didn’t go into GDTRFB. We were all left singing “You know our love will not fade away” and clapping the next line over and over until they came out for the encore. Hey wait, maybe that was the effect they wanted!
Another men’s room interval: after King Solomon’s Marbles I was trying to compose myself when they broke into Black Peter and Bob started singing about all of his friends coming to see him as he lay dying. To me that song is anthemic, but as I say I was trying to gather myself and realized I’d better hit the head if I was going to last for the whole second set (TMI here?). Went to the men’s room and as it turned out many of us old Deadheads had had the same idea, and the tenor of the gathering was ugly.
- One guy said in an outraged voice, “It’s a fucking Garcia song!”
- Another one chimed in, “Fucking Kadlicek should be singing this!”
- A third one summed it up, “Fucking Bobby can be so selfish!”
- I chimed in with, “Yeah but you’ve gotta admit that Big Bad Blues and Hell In a Bucket were great.” (I thought I might get a swirly for saying that.)
- People grunted in agreement. Another guy said, “Yeah, but Black Peter is such a fucking great song.”
- We all agreed with that one and then the first guy summed it up, “Yeah well, a great time for a PEE BREAK!”
Then we all ran back into the hall and caught the second half of the song, which is fucking great. And then they went into Shakedown Street! Back in the late 70s I didn’t appreciate this song as much as I should have (can you say disco Dead?), but since then I’ve come to appreciate the interplay of instruments on it. This was a great example of what a tight band Furthur can be.
The Boston Globe ran a review of the Thursday show and reviewer Scott McLennan had a point, that the show was over-prepared and didn’t feature the walking-a-fine-line aesthetic that can make a Dead (oops, we keep forgetting that it’s Furthur) show so thrilling. I can understand that point, but it’s important to me to see any Dead/Furthur show as part of a continuum as opposed to a singular performance, and to realize this is a musical process that we are just seeing a snapshot of. We aren’t seeing “a show,” we’re seeing a bit of an ever-changing monster.
Time for the organ donor rap and the encore. Phil came out and seemed to mumble into the mike, but the reality of it was that we were still clapping out Not Fade Away and he didn’t want to interrupt us. The band finished with Liberty and it wasn’t exactly the Round and Round we were all hoping for, but it was another great ensemble performance and got us all out of the hall. GREAT SHOW!
Sarah and I took our time but then made our way outside, dodging the thousands of staggering and frozen-still fans on the sidewalk and then making our break up Tremont Street towards the Common, where we slowed down and meandered back uphill towards the State House. I looked at Boston in the late evening all around me and thought about the many times I’d had wonderful experiences in that city and hoped that they would go on and on. How can you describe how wonderful it is to see a band like that and, for us, to know that we were about to go home and see our son and friends and then go see Furthur the next night?