Luxe Life Blog
Photos: Furthur calls to mind ghosts of Grateful Dead concerts past
By Jack Houston
So what are Deadheads to do when it’s 2012 and the band they once worshiped has ceased to exist for the past 17 years?
On Thursday night, the most official and (lately) most uncanny representation of the Grateful Dead returned to the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel to wind its way through a set filled with Dead classics and a few choice covers.
Whether or not Furthur, now in its third year of existence, ever releases an album or has a hit single is of no importance to fans. They’re there mainly to see two of the Dead’s founding members, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, perform alongside the most Jerryish of Jerry Garcia acolytes, guitarist John Kadlecik, in a musical setting that calls to mind the ghosts of Dead concerts past: unpredictable set lists, exploratory jams and those aphoristic Robert Hunter lyrics that seem ready-made for bumper stickers, T-shirts and Facebook profiles.
The missing piece in nearly all Dead spinoff groups over the years has been a suitable replacement for Garcia, but Furthur cracked the code with Kadlecik, who spent more than a decade “playing Jerry” in the tribute band Dark Star Orchestra before being plucked by Lesh and Weir for what one imagines is the gig of a lifetime. He’s joined by Weir’s Ratdog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, drummer Joe Russo and a pair of backup singers, Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson.
Eschewing the lead-in jams that frequently evolve into the opening song, Russo kicked off the band’s 80-minute first set with the familiar drumbeat to “Alligator,” and they were off and running. A romp through “Minglewood Blues,” an obscure 1920s jug band song that was re-imagined by the Dead on two separate occasions, featured Kadlecik and Weir trading solos, while a rare cover of Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” allowed Chimenti to let loose across his Yamaha grand piano.
A crescendo-filled “Jack Straw” was an early show highlight, but it was “He’s Gone,” a song that’s taken on new meaning among Deadheads since Garcia’s passing, that had the audience singing along, particularly to feel-good lines like “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.” The subsequent “Deal” was a fine complement to the contemplative “He’s Gone,” with Kadlecik building his guitar solo into a fury and unleashing some Garcia-style scrubbing near the end.
Kadlecik is at his best when tackling Garcia’s ballads, and “Candyman” -- always kind of an afterthought on the gem-filled “American Beauty” album -- was exquisitely rendered, with Weir adding slide guitar fills and Chimenti the picture of restraint on piano. A set-closing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around & Around,” sung by Weir and featuring a jazzy breakdown midway through, hinted at what was to come -- a second set tailor-made for Weir fans.
If there’s been one complaint about Weir over the years, it’s been his tendency to matter-of-factly toss off lyrics, or sometimes forget them altogether. But the 64-year-old guitarist came alive in the second set, barreling through “In the Midnight Hour” and “Playing in the Band” before letting loose his trademark falsetto wail during a rocking “Hell in a Bucket” that received one of the night’s warmest receptions. Later, during a timely version of “Throwing Stones,” a rare political song from a band not really known for such things, he replaced the line, “Selling guns ‘stead of food today,” by shouting, “You can buy a whole damn government today!” (Having performed in support of President Obama on many occasions, perhaps Weir’s performance of the song had something to do with the presidential debate Wednesday.)
While Weir commanded the spotlight, Lesh, 72, enjoyed only one lead vocal all night, a warm, patient version of “Bird Song,” which he seemed to be enjoying every minute of, wringing out the meaning in what was once one of Garcia’s most tender vocals.
There was a moment during the second set when it seemed as if the young guns might have snatched control from the elders, when Kadlecik lit into a cover of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” (once a staple of the Jerry Garcia Band’s sets) and began furiously trading solos with Chimenti as Russo pounded away with some of his most insistent drumming of the evening as Weir and Lesh looked on.
But that moment was short-lived. Soon Weir was back at the helm, and the jam evolved into a cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” that began as a measured take on the rock standard, then downshifted into a slinky reggae groove before Kadlecik brought the energy level to a peak with a delay-driven, Hendrix-inspired jam. A seamless transition -- one that seemed to have visibly impressed even Lesh -- led into “Wharf Rat,” yet another example of Kadlecik’s mastery of a Garcia ballad, which was buoyed by all five vocalists singing in harmony.
After the audience participation of “Not Fade Away,” which traditionally finds the crowd clapping and singing along to the refrain long after the band has left the stage, Furthur, and Kadlecik especially, had one more trick up its sleeve: “Morning Dew.” Originally written during the 1960s as a commentary on a possible nuclear apocalypse, the song was always one of Garcia’s most emotive vocals, and Kadlecik did it more than justice, culminating in a spiraling guitar solo that capped the concert nearly three hours later.
And to think, Lesh and Weir have been at this for nearly five decades.
Thursday night’s first set: “Alligator,” “Minglewood Blues,” “Feelin' Alright,” “Jack Straw,” “He’s Gone,” “Deal,” “Candyman” and “Around & Around.”
Thursday night’s second set: “In the Midnight Hour,” “Playing in the Band,” “Hell in a Bucket,” “Bird Song,” “After Midnight,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Wharf Rat,” “Throwing Stones” and “Not Fade Away.” Encore: “Morning Dew.”
Jack Houston, editor of Las Vegas Magazine, a Greenspun Media Group publication, is more likely to be mistaken for having bed head than for being a Deadhead. Plus, he shaves on Fridays.