So to get my view on “the JK question” out there to begin with: I really like Kadlecik. I DO think he is the right man for the job. I like his playing, his singing, his vibe, his apparent modesty. I don’t think he is one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and, of course, the greatest guitarists of all time are not going to join something as old and established as a Dead band. They are going to make their own historic music. All of us, and Bobby and Phil, lost our one and only greatest guitarists of all time back in 1995. It has taken a long time to figure out how to then go Furthur, and I am glad to say that the way to go Furthur is indeed Furthur. I have heard (and participated in) many conversations that go “Isn’t it weird that they have a guitarist that played the Garcia parts in a so-called tribute band?” and “Shouldn’t it be someone with their own style, blah blah blah?” Look—I’m sympathetic to this view. If this bugs you, I know what you mean. On the other hand, Bobby and Phil and The Dead have played with various people less schooled in the ways of Grateful Dead music and that certainly didn’t work for me either. The point of Grateful Dead music isn’t being a great musician or doing a great solo when it’s your turn. It is the vibe. It is reading the room, and the feedback loop, and going through tunnels and time warps and black holes and coming out the other end, transformed. It is in being the atom’s nucleus one second and a whirling electron spinning around it the next. It is… well, you get the idea. How could anyone play this kind of stuff without, first of all, a real lifetime love of it, like Jerry (and John) and secondly, years of dedication to it? We think “tribute bands” and “cover bands” are weird only because Rock and Roll is so young. No one thinks it odd that classical musicians play Bach and Mozart. No one thinks they are “creepy” or “exploitive.” Just because there is no longer a Beatles or Pink Floyd, does that mean that no one should ever hear that music played live again? I think all of this will be very clear one hundred years from now, when I would bet there will still be artists performing Dark Side or Abbey Road for new audiences. Or Grateful Dead music. John Kadlecik is a deadhead. He loves this music like we do. He has studied it seriously and with intent. He feels honored to bring it to us. What more could we ask for?
All that being said, and though I feel in my heart of hearts that this band is by far the best thing we in the Dead musical universe have had since 1995 and I am truly happy for it, it still rarely makes it all the way there like The Boys of Old used to do. Some of this is the lack of Garcia, sure, but that is not what I’m talking about. I’ve already been through that. Nothing we can do about it. What I am talking about is the lack of True Musical Democracy. In other words, a great jam band is a band of equals. This is not a knock on Phil and Bobby. This is their deal, and how could it not be? They are the ones who’ve been on the bus for the last 47 years. They are the ones who’ve made it happen and have carried the torch. But that, of course, is the whole conundrum.
There may well be no way out of this particular conundrum. The Dead were musical equals because they grew up together. They learned to play together. Grateful Dead music was the result of their cooperation and their arguments, of their lives together. They were a True Musical Democracy like all great bands. Sure, Jerry might have been more equal than the others, as the saying goes, but that would never stop Bob from suddenly going into some other song than Jerry was signaling, while Bill was going somewhere else altogether. That seat of the pants, who’s in charge here, willy-nilly energy is what made The Grateful Dead so thrilling and special. Will it all resolve itself, miraculously, perfectly, into a golden The Wheel? Or will it be yet another train wreck? You never knew, and we didn’t care; either way, we were just elated to participate.
What I’m saying is that, however great Furthur is now, (and I truly think they are doing great) if they are to progress to the next level, they will have to develop True Musical Democracy. John will have to be as free on that stage as Joe as Jeff as Bob as Phil. This may never happen. This may be absolutely impossible as a matter of fact. How could such a thing be, considering the history? But I’ll tell you, I’ve seen JK off in some space, with Jeff right there with him and Bobby raises his arm like a conductor and everyone falls in line with well-rehearsed precision and it’s kind of a let down. It sure wouldn’t be like that on a Grateful Dead stage. If Jerry was kind of liking some weird twirly riff he had going and Brent was right there on his ass, and Bobby signaled that it was time for verse two, well, who knows what might have happened? My question is, can Furthur ever achieve that kind of unity? (disunity?) Because if they can’t, well, then it’ll never be as great as it could be.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this isn’t Phil and Bobby’s thing, or that they shouldn’t be the leaders of this band. I’m not blaming them or saying anything negative about Furthur or the way they play. I’m saying that, through no fault of anyone’s, through the simple history that exists, they remain the employers in this gig and everyone else, the employees. That is the reality. But a jam band can never reach its full potential with such a dynamic.
I will also say that this situation has improved markedly through the last two years. At first, we could all hear what a short leash John was on, and how he strived to be cooperative and careful. (You want me to hang back? Sure, no prob. Oh, you want me to rip? Glad to, how’s this?) Obviously that is no longer the case, and it is interesting and heartening to hear how he sounds less like Garcia and more like himself all the time, even as he steps up and smokes it more and more.
That does not change the fact that this band sounds like it has rehearsed every song and transition to death, that they probably play just about as well in a studio as they do with us cheering them on and that they know just where they are going in each jam between each song (because they do.) That is great. I am glad to be there with my friends to sing along and dance and remember. But to make it something more, to make it it’s own thing, to have it take its own place in the exalted history, what will be required will be a total letting go of the past and the roles played and the missing man whose melodies flow through us all. What will be needed will be True Musical Democracy.
Please comment. I’d love to hear your responses.