Better Than: [Insert clever Grateful Dead song title] cover band
With weather on my mind and 50 miles of Super Bowl-enhanced traffic in front of me, I departed home this past Friday with anticipation of what the Grateful Dead's newest incarnation would have in store.
The circus was in town. In the crowd outside the venue there was decent amount of Saints' fleur-de-lis, and not so many Colts' horseshoes, but there certainly was a plethora of patchwork and tie-dye. With windows rolled down, I navigated the crowd of deadheads hocking their wares with their fingers in the air; and I caught my first whiff of sage and patchouli.
Slightly stressed and a little late, I was eager to park the car. Following the flags, we committed to the first lot we saw. With no exit route available, the $25 fee was inescapable, so we regrettably forked over the loot. A quick scenic lap through the lot is all we got before it was time to make our move. Just so you know, the Bayfront Park Amphitheatre box office is located behind the venue ... not my first guess. But with tickets finally in hand, it was time to check out the band.
I'm admittedly not the biggest Dead fan and I never saw Jerry live, but I always pay respect to the forefathers of psychedelic jam when given the opportunity. It should not be forgotten that the Grateful Dead provided the sonic noise to the Acid Tests of the '60s when LSD first escaped the laboratories. In fact, Furthur is named after Ken Kesey's bus, in which Neal Cassady piloted the Merry Pranksters through time and space.
We spent the first half of the first set taking in the scenery and catching up with friends as Furthur ran through classic Dead tunes, some of which many a head hadn't heard for quite some time. Because, for whatever reason, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh chose this line-up to bust out songs apparently shelved since the mid-'70s. It seems to have paid off. This new line-up is as tight as any other line-up I've witnessed.
It was a version of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" that first grabbed my attention and led us into the meat of the set. The band kept its momentum by jamming in and out of songs with little to no pause, driven by the drum duo of Joe Russo on a traditional kit and Jay Lane in a percussion role. Lesh's L.E.D-lit bass was turned up nice and loud, providing the thunder for set closer "Franklin's Tower," which had a celebratory feel as heads sang "role away the dew" as the rain began to fall.
The set break was an event in itself. We found a nice bench perch under the covered promenade to enjoy the circus freak show.
The second set, meanwhile, kicked off with an extended take on Weir's "Throwing Stones," which seemed to set the tone for an upbeat second set in which the cohesiveness of the band was best exemplified.
Jeff Chimenti's keys and the female backing vocals may have been low in the mix, but Dark Star Orchestra's John Kadlecik definitely stood out. Although the rain eventually stopped, his guitar continued to storm through the evening, using many typical Jerry effects. I overheard praise and sentiments acknowledging that this may be the most spot-on Grateful Dead guitar since the early '80s, considering Jerry's health in his later years. Much like Kobe's emerging dominance in the NBA, this stage may be Kadlecik's chance to step out of Jerry's shadow as Kobe has of Michael's.
Furthur took us further on towards Edge City during "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" into "Good Lovin," and again during the blissful "Terrapin Station" that seamlessly blended into the disco funk of "Shakedown Street." The band finally brought it home with "China Cat Sunflower" into "I Know You Rider." Then there was a brief speech from Phil, and encore of one of the Dead's most heartfelt tunes, "Ripple." It was the perfect calm after the storm.
Personal Bias: Like I said, I'm not the biggest Grateful Dead fan.
Random Detail: Through advances in medical technology and the kindness of others, Phil Lesh was granted an extension on life. Receiving a liver transplant, the blessed bassist never misses an opportunity to use his platform to give voice of thanks and urge others to participate.
Set One: Jam > "Born Cross Eyed" > "Music Never Stopped" > "Ramble on Rose" > "Golden Road" (to "Unlimited Devotion") > "Dear Mr. Fantasy" > Jam > "On the Road Again" > "Franklin's Tower"
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Set Two: "Throwing Stones" > "Viola Lee Blues" > "Mason's Children" > "Viola Lee Blues" > "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" > "Good Lovin', Lady With A Fan" > "Terrapin Station" > "Shakedown Street" > "China Cat Sunflower" > "I Know You Rider"
Sound Check: "Dear Mr. Fantasy," "Mason's Children," "Reuben and Cherise," "Deep Elem Blues," "Ashes and Glass," "Ramble on Rose" (partial), "King Solomon's Marbles" (partial)
-- Matt Beck