Thursday, August 04, 2011

Furthur and The Grateful Dead

Furthur is the current band of the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, with John Kadlecik on lead guitar, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, Joe Russo on drums, and Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Garcia Becker on backing vocals. The band has played over 100 shows since their first gig in September 2009, and though I have not had a chance to hear them live (since I live in Switzerland and they have not been in Europe yet, and I always miss them by days when I'm in the U.S.), I have listened to recordings of all their shows, thanks to the Live Music Archive and Furthur's own live downloads. Gradually, despite my being a veteran Deadhead (83 shows from 1982-1995), I have come to the conclusion (with a couple of caveats) that Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead.

The primary reason is Jeff Chimenti on keyboards. Chimenti's background is primarily in jazz, and he has played with Bob Weir's band Ratdog since the late 1990s, as well as being on keyboards with the various incarnations of The Dead (as the surviving members of the Grateful Dead—Weir, Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann—called themselves in 1003-4 and 2008-9). Simply put, Chimenti is a much better player than any of the Grateful Dead's keyboard players. None of them (Pigpen, Tom Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick, or even Bruce Hornsby, whose tenure on piano with the GD was brief but wonderful) ever had the chops to provide a serious second lead instrument alongside Jerry Garcia's leads—and that is exactly what Chimenti adds to the mix. While Garcia always rightly insisted that his lead playing was just part of what the band was doing, the sound of Furthur benefits hugely from Chimenti's leads, both as a compliment to Kadlicek's lead guitar and in how his keyboard solos (whether on piano or organ) take the band's jams in ever new directions.

Drummer Joe Russo is also a better drummer than Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann ever were. I always liked the lightness of Hart and Kreutzmann's playing together, the way they kept the band afloat by never overemphasizing the beat but always playing colors and textures around it. When they started playing the beat more heavily in the late 80s, it detracted from the band's feel to my ears (although this might have been a matter of mixing the snare drum higher, in good 80s style, à la Phil Collins). Russo plays the beat with emphasis and drive, while also keeping the rhythm floating. Both Chimenti and Russo's potent contributions to Furthur can be heard in exemplary fashion in the first set of the July 22 show at the Gathering of the Vibes festival in Bridgeport, Connecticut, especially on "Sugaree," "Deal," and "Big River." (That just happens to be the show I listened to this morning.)

Furthur's quality also derives from the vocal arrangements. The backup singers and the band's obvious serious rehearsal of the vocals give Furthur something the Grateful Dead never had: consistent high-quality harmonies. I love the old recordings of "Uncle John's Band," say, as much as any Deadhead, but Furthur just nails the vocals all the time, while with the Grateful Dead, the vocals were always hit and miss at best. While listening to the Bridgeport "Sugaree" and "Deal," it struck me that, in this respect, Furthur is more like the Jerry Garcia Band in the 80s and 90s, with his excellent background singers. (I even hope that Lesh and Weir will give their backup singers a chance to step forward and sing lead ...)

So Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead—but of course, they owe everything to the Grateful Dead. Weir and Lesh are still playing their Grateful Dead repertoire, most of which (despite excellent contributions from Weir and Lesh) was written by Garcia. They should, of course: it's a great catalogue! There are a couple of Furthur originals, and one or two get played per show, but it would be a waste if Weir and Lesh played together without playing their back catalogue together, and as with the Grateful Dead, they play almost the whole catalogue, with no repeats from one show to the next.

Now it's time to discuss the elephant in the room: Jerry Garcia. Overall, Furthur is a better group of musicians than the Grateful Dead, but Furthur doesn't have a Garcia, who was simply one of the best musicians in rock history (and even beyond rock, as his work with David Grisman shows). Yet Garcia was not always at his best, and John Kadlecik is much more consistent than Garcia was in the last few years of his life. Like Chimenti, Kadlecik also has great jazz chops. Early in my listening to Furthur, I kept hearing traces of John Abercrombie in Kadlecik's playing, which turned out to be a matter of the wrong John: Kadlecik's primary early influence (even before he began listening to the Grateful Dead and Garcia)was John McLaughlin. As the lead player in the Dead cover band The Dark Star Orchestra for over a decade, Kadlecik knows how to "be" Garcia; interestingly, Furthur gives him a chance to play Garcia's music while being himself.

So the two caveats on my claim are that Furthur doesn't have Garcia, and that Furthur plays Grateful Dead music and is thus implicitly "derivative." But my argument is finally that Furthur does take the Grateful Dead's music "further," primarily but not only because of the unique contributions of Chimenti and Russo to the band's sound.

A while back, I read a comment on a Furthur show at the Live Music Archive that pointed out that in 20 years, when Furthur is long gone, Deadheads will be listening to the Grateful Dead and not to Furthur. Because of Garcia, that's probably true, even for this Furthur fan, but my response is also that the Grateful Dead's run ended in 1995, and Furthur is happening now. I hope I get a chance to hear them live before they stop happening.


grubby bean said...

you need to listen to more Keith shows

Andrew Shields said...

I was disappointed that this did not generate any discussion when I posted it, and surprised and pleased that I got two comments today, just over three months later. One of them was an anonymous insult, so I deleted it.

I have 4+ GB of Keith-era live Dead in my iTunes library, from roughly about 60 different shows. My all-time favorite bit of Dead is the Eyes and the Playing-Scarlet-Playing medley from August 6, 1974, which was released on Dick's Picks 31. So I thought I'd compare that Eyes to the last Eyes from the early-autumn tour, which was on October 5 at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.

I listened to the GD 74 version first. The band is on fire, but Keith? There are a few little textures here and there, and a few accents, but if there's anything especially spectacular about his performance, he's mixed too low for it to be really noticeable. Garcia burns throughout, and Phil does a cool solo before they go into the KSM-style jam that ended Eyes at the time.

The Furthur version confirms my basic claims: Furthur has a better keyboard player, better vocals, and a better drummer (though this last point could be debated at length, and perhaps comes down to a matter of taste and mixing style). Chimenti plays an explosive piano solo after the first verse; this is top-quality lead playing. The vocal arrangement is richly textured and powerful; the GD version pales by comparison. Arguably, Phil should not sing lead on the song, though; Garcia was a much better singer in 74 than Phil has ever been. I think they should give the Eyes lead to Jeff Pehrson. :-)

As for the drumming: I love Kreutzmann's light touch in the 74 version, but Russo keeps the light touch while adding more drive to the arrangement.

So, Grubby Bean, I've performed one comparative listening bit. If you name a particular bit of Keith to listen to, I'd love to do some more. It's fun to compare explicitly!

Anonymous said...

See the pot which has been stirred @ the Phil zone:

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

Insult? You heretic :-)

I enjoyed your analysis. It's a difficult comparison to make, for me. The Grateful Dead experience as a whole is far enough in the past to have a rose-colored aura around it. Part of that aura is "my lost youth", which is hard to compete with!

darkstar1269 said...

No way, I have been to only 14 of the many Furthur shows, and although I very much enjoyed each and every one of them, not one of them compared to any of the 180+ dead shows I attended. It is just not the same band and really the only comparison to draw is that they perform mostly the same songs. I wouldn't compare a JGB 'Deal' to a GD 'Deal' It is just not the same, and for me (and I imagine many deadheads) it is more than just the music, it is the entire experience form when you wake up on the morning of the show until you go to bed after the show. Listen to Broomfield, CO 2010-03-06 Morning Dew, OUTSTANDING. Still not Cornell 1977? Also not every Dew that Furthur does is at that level, so I tend to respectfully disagree, but maybe because you haven't had the great pleasure of attending a Furthur show yet and it has been a long time since 1995. You bring up good points, I personally just don't draw a comparison between the bands.

Andrew Shields said...

I saw Furthur on December 29, 2011, in San Francisco, and to me, they are still a better BAND than the Dead. Lesh and Weir are in both, so I tend to leave them out of the comparison. It's the overall package of the rest of the group that adds up: guitar, keys, drums, vocalists.

What Furthur does not have is Garcia, and to my ears, it's Garcia, and not the band as a whole, that makes moments like Morning Dew at Cornell in May 77 (or the best one I experienced, Ventura in July 84) so utterly extraordinary. But that's about Garcia, not about the whole band.

I certainly never would have expected to make such a claim, but it's the conclusion I've come to: what I miss in Furthur and other post-Dead bands is Garcia himself, not the band. What Furthur gives me is an experience of the whole band being brilliant, and not just parts of it.