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The Dead live: Furthur proves how far they have left to travel

September 23, 2010 | 12:24 pm

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The yelling starts while they’re still tuning guitars. “Play 'High on a Mountain!' ” “We Love You Bob [Weir] and Phil [Lesh]!” From the first note, a voice rises above the applause: “Oh, yeah, they’re going way back.” The bellows are punctuated by the green and red glowsticks that dot the Greek Theatre like hippie fireflies. This is a Furthur concert circa 2010, a celebration of who has survived and the Grateful Dead.

Taking its name from the fabled bus that heaved the Merry Pranksters cross-country, Furthur is the closest approximation of the vintage lineup still roaming the country. And it doesn't lack competition. Bob Weir has his own outfit, Ratdog, the Dead itself barnstormed America last year, and the tribute band Dark Star Orchestra is so good that Furthur plucked one of its co-founders, John Kadlecik, to continue inhabiting the spirit of Jerry Garcia on the largest venue possible. Not to forget local linchpins  Cubensis.

Though the avuncular guitar god Garcia has been buried for a decade and a half, his salt-and-pepper-haired legion and their tie-dyed legatees continue to flock to anything Dead-related. If you didn’t know any better, you might’ve guessed the parking lot scene was rife with people flashing peace signs, when they were really just trying to purchase two seats for the sold-out show.

Those on the inside were treated to a performance far more dynamic than it had any right to be. Phil Lesh celebrated his 70th birthday in March, but he looks a decade younger, unleashing sprightly bass lines that defied time and gravity. His partner, Bob Weir, a precocious 62, sported a silver Old West sheriff’s mustache, but played rhythm guitar with the alacrity of an outlaw -- even if he lamentably didn’t play “Me and My Uncle.”

But his band did delve deep into the Grateful Dead discography, including such set list staples as “Morning Dew,” “Alligator,” “Ramble on Rose” and “Playing in the Band.” Backed by a pair of back-up singers and drummer Joe Russo (of the esteemed Benevento/Russo duo), the three leads alternated vocal duty, buoyed by Kadlecik’s liquid LSD guitar lines.

Scarcely distinguishable from Garcia at his most focused, Kadlecik pulled off the tricky feat of imitating the inimitable -- the primary reason why he achieved the sort of heart-warming promotion fit for a Disney film or at least the the Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon.

In particular, a seamless 20-minute plus version of “Unbroken Chain” revealed how tight and funky Furthur remains. Like anything great, the appeal of the Grateful Dead is both complex and simple. Their songs are steeped in the old, weird America that conjures atavistic and occasionally unremembered nostalgia. On a subconscious level, the jams stick like cleats, with the guitar solos rendering an often dull instrument into a molecular building block.

The times changed decades ago and Furthur doesn't attempt to hide it. After all, it's difficult to imagine the Dead of 1972 preceding an encore with a plea from Lesh for fans to become organ donors. But armed with an indefatigable catalog and inexorably sharp skills, Furthur proved how much is has left.

When the veterans finished with a jaunty and inordinately lively encore of “Box of Rain,” it encapsulated their intent: to provide a forum to celebrate what lyricist Robert Hunter wrote 40 years ago: such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be [here].

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: The Gratefold Dead in the mid-1980s. Credit: Herb Greene / Associated Press

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