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The Improvisational Journey of Bob Weir's Furthur

The "furthur" mentality was brought into this world by a group of young California freaks back in the mid-'60s called the Merry Pranksters. The idea was to always go further: further into the deep mystery of their own consciousness, further into each other's lives, and further down the roads of America. For the latter type of traveling — which was not at all separate from the other types — they had a bus named, naturally, Furthur. The word was painted boldly just above the front windshield in the space where a bus declares its destination.

When at home in California, the group led (or nonled) by author Ken Kesey put on events called "Acid Tests." These events were designed to put the attendees' insufficiently examined notions of self and certainty to the test by drenching them in "Electric Kool-Aid," sound, light, and dance. In short, they provided an improvisational environment and overall experience that was new and mysterious. Attendees had to think, feel, and be outside of their old conceptual paradigms, and within that, the Grateful Dead was born.

The Grateful Dead's first gig was at the second Acid Test, and it became the de-facto house band — for the Tests themselves and for the consciousness that continued beyond the Tests — from then on out. Nearly half a century later, Dead founding members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh are more than a year into their trip in a new vehicle for exploration and adventure. This one is also called Furthur, but it's a band, not a bus.

"The band Furthur is a further exercise in what the Dead was all about," says Weir. "It is nothing really new, except for that every step we take, every note we play, is new." The engine that propels the Day-Glo bus of a band perpetually into new space is group improvisation. "It's basically the jazz M.O.," says Weir, who counts John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner as big influences. "You state a theme and then take it for a little walk in the woods. And it gets pretty colorful in there."

Weir and Lesh have discovered new colors using that method for a long time. Back in the old days, Weir recalls the one car (not even a bus!) that the Dead would all pack into to cruise around to gigs or rehearsals. Whoever was riding shotgun would hit buttons on the radio randomly, then cut it off. They'd get a scrap of a song, a little theme; then they'd all hum what they heard and extrapolate on it, riffing off of each other's ideas. In this way, a collective groove would develop and evolve into yet-unrealized musical ideas. And so it went and continues to go onstage, happening in various, unpredictable ways.

There are three normal ways in which group improvisation happens, according to Weir. In these "normal" scenarios, either you state a theme and go with it yourself, you go with a theme someone else has stated, or you state a theme and others go with it. But there are accidents. For instance, two people may simultaneously state themes that accidentally tie into each other, and the group adopts both and works them together into one hybrid. Or someone may space out and catch only the last half of what has been stated and go with that, thus staying relevant but taking it in a new direction.

"The thing is, all kinds of stuff happens," Weir says. "It's just a matter of listening as intently as you possibly can. We have a pretty good idea of how we all work. I have a pretty good idea of what's going to light my fellow band members up and how to lead them and also how to follow."

As Furthur moves ahead with excitement, there has recently been good reason to pause and look back. Grateful Dead financier, mad scientist soundman, and all-around key figure Owsley Stanley died in a car accident on March 13. Stanley was best-known as the cosmic wizard who brewed up what was said to be the best, cleanest LSD in the world. His was the acid that spiked the Kool-Aid and perhaps helped to guide Kesey's mind to the golden word: furthur.

For Weir, it wasn't the LSD that Owsley contributed that remains with him but rather an attitude that continues to play a large role in how he approaches life, which clearly shows in his approach to playing music. "He basically taught me to question everything. To be critical of everything — not negatively so but playfully so. To go with any information that comes my way and go with it where it wants to go. If somebody is telling me something, to try to hear exactly what they intend for me to hear and see where it is my intuition wants to take it." Furthur might as well be written across his forehead, just as it was written across the front of the bus.

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Travis Newbill

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