Live: Furthur at the Greek Theatre
When Jerry Garcia 45 years ago suggested that his bandmates change their name from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead, the switch seemed appropriate. After all, Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bill Kreutzmann were more interested in visions than violence -- a distinction that aided their adoption as the house band at Ken Kesey’s lysergic La Honda compound.
Of course, Garcia’s passing in the summer of 1995 effectively ended the Grateful Dead of the psychedelic imagination. But a strange thing happened on the way to the graveyard. Taking its own advice, the band didn’t fade away. There are the tours under the name the Dead. Weir fronts Ratdog. Lesh has stomped floorboards next to Bob Dylan and with his own Phil Lesh and Friends. And enough cover bands have cropped up to ensure that tie-die textile manufacturers remain busy.
But out of the alphabet soup of side projects the survivors have pursued over the last decade and a half, Furthur is the closest approximation to the original article. Fronted by rhythm guitarist Weir and bassist Lesh, the band celebrated its two year-anniversary last month, a stretch that has established it as the go-to tabernacle for those still worshipping “St. Stephen.”
Of course, Deadheads will quickly point out that the song “St. Stephen” is largely a Garcia vehicle and that, as Furthur has been forced to figure out, replacing one of the most iconic rock frontmen in history is an impossible task. Wisely, they devised the best substitute, recruiting drummer Joe Russo from the formidable Benevento/Russo duo and lead guitarist John Kadlecik, who formerly filled the Garcia role in the inimitable Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra.
In what might be the greatest promotion since the movie "Being There," Kadlecik was the band’s not-so-secret weapon Wednesday at the Greek Theatre, gracefully channeling and expanding upon Garcia’s vaulting and intuitive guitar technique. One of the set highlights was Kadlecik’s lead vocal on “Brown Eyed Woman,” which set the sold-out crowd into sing-a-long mode.
But it was like that all night. In the men’s room during “Bertha,” guys with sweatshirts around their waist and wire-frame glasses spontaneously burst out, “Bertha don’t you come around here anymore.”
It’s redundant to ascribe the importance that Dead fans hold for setlists. If you Google around, you’ll see Furthur’s song selection crunched like Bill James doing Sabermetrics. And Wednesday night, the crowd was satiated with iconic cuts such as “Jack Straw,” “Eyes of the World,” “He’s Gone,” "New Speedway Boogie” and the “Terrapin Station Suite.” The band even threw in a cover of the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”
Unlike most legendary bands well into AARP age (the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, the Who), Furthur retains a striking synchronicity and the infinite pulse of its prime. Though Weir may have shed his boyish charm for the massive mustache of an ancient sea mariner, his voice remains strong and his groove stays rollicking. It’s certainly a matter of retention from years on the road, but it’s also indicative of the high esteem and respect band members have for one another and the fans.
Indeed, Furthur could inevitably sell out shows from the Greek to Greece, so great is the bond between band and audience. And judging from the ululations emitted during the encore, “Johnny B. Goode,” Furthur remains sure-footed on its journey.
Following the final song, Lesh came out once more to request that the crowd consider becoming organ donors (a liver transplant saved his life 13 years ago). The audience roared in support, seemingly simultaneously aware that we were lucky to be able to see Weir and Lesh in rare form in 2011, when so many of their peers lie underground. With the Dead, it's always been about the music first and the family second. Furthur is about one more thing: a gratefulness that its members are still alive and able to thrive.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: File photo of Grateful Dead fans at a 1995 show in Highgate, Vt. The Dead's offshoot band, Furthur, performed at the Greek Theatre on Wednesday. Credit: Toby Talbot / Associated Press.