It was a no brainer for most California Deadheads to make the pilgrimage to Monterey County Fairgrounds for the final two shows of Furthur's West Coast Fall Tour. The Petee Arena, site of the fabled 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, is where the Grateful Dead famously either played horribly at their highest profile gig to date, or just had the misfortune of being sandwiched between Jimi Hendrix and The Who. Whatever the case, the band refused to license their performance for the highly influential documentary film about the festival by D.A. Pennebaker, and the set attained a kind of legendary status, not unlike the also-omitted performance from the Woodstock movie two years later. For those who know Pennebaker's movie well, walking into that fairground-size performance area was a bit eerie - the place has not changed one bit, from the low-slung stage to the beveled roof of the stands that surround the main floor, which was covered in sawdust. Vending booths, concessions, and grassy sections surrounded the performance area. The whole place had a homespun, small town feel for a crowd that is used to impersonal arenas. Much credit is due to the band for searching out and continuing to play truly special spots like this, Cuthbert in Eugene, Red Rocks, and on and on.
Expectations were running unfairly high on the first night, but even so, the band came out of the gate a bit stiff and tired sounding. Bobby's night got off to an inauspicious start as he forgot the first few lines of "Promised Land". The infrequently played "Easy Wind" was a great surprise but would've come off better when everyone, including the crowd, was warmed up. "Pride of Cucomonga" showed the first signs of promise as the blues groove in the middle opened up and hinted at some Anthem of the Sun era jamming. At this point, though, the inconsistent mix was becoming a big distraction to folks around me. We were right behind the main pit, in front of the board, where you'd expect a good representation of what the engineer was intending. Instead, we got wildly fluctuating levels and an all around lack of John Kadlecik's lead guitar. Unfortunately, "Mission in the Rain", one of Jerry's most beloved and beautifully melodic tunes, almost fell apart right from the get-go as Bobby struggled with his teleprompter. A certain amount of lyrical amnesia is always a charming element of any Dead-related show, but this moment really deflated the energy in the room and seemed to knock Bob's confidence for a while. The "Two Djinn" that came next, while probably not on anyone's wish list, refocused the band. Musically, this song sounds to me like Bob and Jerry sat down and wrote together, with Bobby's typically dissonant, somewhat futuristic chordal structures giving way to a very "Scarlet"-like melodic hook. "Mason's Children" contained a gnarly jam led by the finally audible JK that segued gracefully into the set closing "Mighty Quinn".
JK got the the second set going with a favorite new cover, George Harrison's "Any Road" from Brainwashed, the excellent album Harrison was working on when he died. This tune is such a natural fit for Furthur I had some folks ask me when Hunter and Kadelecik had started writing together. Its infectious, bouncy feel and zen-like lyrical sentiment fits the "all who wander are not lost" crowd very well. After a brief pause, the band fell into a dark, snaky "Estimated Prophet". You could almost hear the relief come over the room as people exhaled and prepared to sink into some "primal Dead". This version, like many of Bob's tunes of late, was slowed down, but the deliberate, muscular delivery served this song well. Phil's dub-like bass was cranked, Bob treated us to some genuine, echo-enhanced screams, and we were off, finally firing on all cylinders! On paper, the rest of the set looks amazing and certainly did contain some jaw-dropping playing, but overall didn't quite muster the X-factor this band has shown it's capable of on a nightly basis. The "Dark Star" jam did what it should, and that is to surprise and be forever new, but I would have appreciated a few minutes of theme-based melodic playing. "King Solomon's Marbles" crackled, and "Dear Prudence" really gave singers Jeff Pearson and Sunshine Garcia Becker a chance to shine
After a gorgeous, relaxing California day, the band returned on Saturday refreshed, recharged and ready to rock. The audience had also grown to past-capacity and the Saturday night energy was on. The one-two 80s combo of "Feel Like a Stranger" and "Althea" started the first set on a high note, with the whole band interlocking and pressing each other forward. "No More Do I", the best original song to come out of the Phil Lesh Quintet and sometimes played by the Other Ones and the Dead, was a bold, well played choice. The back section of the first half was like being plunged deep into a second set. "Viola Lee Blues", arguably the most revitalized of the resurrected songs in Furthur's repertoire, came next, followed by a chilling duet on "Comes a Time" by Kadelecik and Becker, and a thunderous "Throwing Stones" closer, with Weir, confidence intact, changing the lyrics to "Money green, it's the only way…like I said, you can buy the whole god damned government today". A song that sometimes seemed strident and self-important in the eighties now seemed the perfect rallying cry for the Occupy movement gaining momentum while the show was going on.
Saturday's second set was an example of when the music really was as good as it appears on paper. An amazing setlist and equally inspired playing brought the whole weekend home in an immensely satisfying way. Phil, in particular, was indulging his restless mind with such taste and groove that it was hard to pin down where he was going at any given time -- you just knew you were going somewhere. It brought to mind Jerry's comment about how if you isolated any four bars of Phil's playing it wouldn't really tell you anything because his ideas extended the whole length of the song. After the party of "Golden Road > Shakedown Street > Truckin'", the triumvirate of "Let it Grow" , "All Along the Watchtower" and "Morning Dew" once again manifested a darker, reflective commentary on our culture's reawakened sense of economic and ecological collapse. After that intensity, what better salve than the reassuring sentiments of "Help on the Way"? This was a beautiful, deliberately crafted journey of a setlist that emerged into the reassuring "Franklin's Tower" closer and "One More Saturday Night" encore. The audience response was heart-warmingly genuine and appreciative -- for this night, and for all the years we've gotten to do this together. The band lingered on stage longer than normal, hugging and waving, and we slowly wandered out of this special little place in Monterey.