Things aren't as strange as they used to be, although it has been "a long, strange trip." Through thick and thin, the band known as Furthur, slated to appear at the Monterey County Fairgrounds Friday and Saturday, has maintained a special place in the hearts of music fans worldwide. Led by original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, the seven-piece ensemble still plays in a style attributed to the Grateful Dead, yet there is a door left open for further explorations of a nature unique to this group. "We're taking it as it comes," said Weir in a phone interview from his home in Marin, in response to why they're touring sans the still-surviving original drummers. "It's directing us. It sounds trite, yet one of the reasons we're doing this, pulling off in our own direction, is because we're able to go and play and keep the conversation we've had going for 45 or 50 years, and let that continue to develop without the added baggage and set of expectations of bringing The Dead back together. We'll probably get around to doing that again. With that comes a set of expectations that we don't have with Furthur, and that's kind of freeing."
"It was all hugely informative for us to be around Ken Kesey and Augustus Owsley Stanley III," Weir said. "Those guys shaped who we are, shaped our outlooks. What we pull out of life therefore is what we pull out of music."
"I got started playing with Jerry when I'd just turned 16," Weir explained in a discussion of musical influences. "But back in the early days we listened to a lot of jazz. Early on we did and still do. If I'm going to listen to music for my own gratification, for my own enjoyment, generally speaking I'll listen to jazz or modern classical, or anything but popular music, because if I'm taking a vacation, I want to go away from home. I've always been like that. I never listened to a lot of popular music. Well, there was a day when I listened to more than I do now. Now when I listen to pop music, generally it's what my kids are listening to in the car and the radio is on and they're listening to their music. I'm starting to get the drift, a little bit of a drift, of what the current crop of popular music offering is. I wouldn't be so bold as to start mentioning favorites yet, but Katy Perry is awful good."
While the band worked a lot of gigs playing dance music early on, once they started playing the Acid Tests, they were allowed the freedom to play for hours on end, and they indulged themselves with long, meandering jams that developed into either sublime conversations or devolved to uninteresting musical babble.
"Well, the early years taught me to be a lot on my feet," he said. "That stuck with me. Then all the musical influences, if you can drag in a classical reference without making it seem like a classical reference, or a jazz reference without making it seem like a jazz reference. You don't want to be didactic about when you're writing or what you're playing." Weir continued to share an anecdote of recently playing with pianist Bruce Hornsby at one of Levon Helm's Rambles, and how he picked up on a musical quote Hornsby offered that he was able to discern was from a 12-tone modern classical piece by one of his favorite composers, Elliott Carter. "It's sort of difficult to get the drift with 12-tone music," he said, "but Bruce can make that stuff live. And I caught his thread and was able to hear what he was up to and tried to complement that. We rattled on and on for 25 minutes on this 12-tone music. And it was wildly and enthusiastically received. And usually, 12-tone music leaves people scratching their heads wondering what they are listening to."
"For what it's worth, I still hear Jerry," Weir said. "I can still feel him, not exactly breathing over my neck, but if I'm going off in some direction, I can sort of feel him saying, 'Yeah, go there. No, don't go there, don't go there,' and I'll respond like I always did with 'Yeah, I'm going there anyway' or not, depending on the will o' the wisp, I guess. But then I can also hear in the ether there somewhere, the crackle of his tonality. I just hear the ghost of what he's playing. So it's not like I miss him all that much because he's not gone."
Furthur's two nights at the Monterey County Fairgrounds stage begs for recognition as the first time a Dead band has played there since the historical Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. Weir says the band didn't play so well on Sunday night because it was forced to play on backline equipment they were not familiar with, as well as being nervous playing for the largest paid crowd ever for them. (After the festival, that backline equipment went missing, only to turn up in San Francisco at a couple free shows put on in the panhandle by the band's management. All was more or less forgiven when they returned it after enjoying its use for a bit.) It also didn't help the band's performance being sandwiched between The Who and Jimi Hendrix, the two most flamboyant and destructive performances of the festival. Beyond that, though, there were some very cool experiences that Weir remembers with delight. "There was one particularly wiggy event that I fell into," he said. "A friend of mine, his dad owned Guild guitars and he was big in the business. He had set up an exhibit booth for Guild musical instruments. Backstage, there were a number of those little expo booths set up. Guild had some guitars and basses and equipment set up there, and there was a jam just starting to happen, so I plugged into, I think it was a big Standel amplifier. One by one people started coming in. 'This black kid with a headband came in," he continued. "He didn't have a place or an amplifier to plug into, so I said, 'Well here, you plug into the other channel on this one and we'll just see what we get.' Turns out it was Jimi Hendrix, and that was where I met him. We had a lot of fun and we went on endlessly. We were hanging like monkeys off this amplifier, having our instruments feedback and exploring scales and just jamming. "And at one point, Paul Simon showed up, and I actually knew him. I had met him a few days earlier. And all he had was an acoustic guitar. And there was another channel in our amplifier, and there were electric guitars to be had in the exhibit. So I tried to communicate, it was pretty loud, but I tried to communicate with him, you know. 'Grab one of those electric and plug into the other channel.' He said, 'No I'm going to play the acoustic. You won't be able to hear well, but you'll feel my vibrations.' And so I let it go at that. We had a lot of fun at that jam. That was one major one. There was another one with Eric Burdon and some of his guys."
"Yeah, (experiencing our music) is kind of a rite of passage for certain people," Weir said about seeing new fans come to the shows. "These are people that require a lot of adventure in their lives, and therefore a little adventure in their music. And we're more than happy to provide that."