Here's one person's take. His comments on Garcia's consistency are interesting. I don't agree with all of his opinions. But I do respect what he has to say.
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.
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you