Furthur: Hammerstein Ballroom, New York, NY 12/9/09

After three (mostly) triumphant shows in Oakland in September, Furthur began its mini-tour of the Northeast in Manhattan last week.  With a New Year’s show and February swing already scheduled, Bobby and Phil have given guitar responsibilities to former DSO frontman John Kadelick for the foreseeable future.  Wednesday, the second of the two shows began with a nice “Stranger,” that was more upbeat than the half-speed version that was unveiled in Oakland.  Kadelick had some nice solos, which elicited roars of approval from the sweaty crowd.  “Deal,” with Kadelick and Weir splitting Jerry’s verses, also reached similar heights.  By all reports, this was already better than the previous night’s show.  “Crazy Fingers” was sweet in all the right places, but segued into a “Memphis Blues” that was a total train wreck.  Put simply, Bobby couldn’t remember any of the words.  This should not come as a surprise, since it has a ton of lyrics, even for a Dylan song.  However, the joke on tour was always that Bobby could recall the words to a tune like that, but not a song like “Truckin” one of the band’s own warhorses.  I saw music stands in front of all the singers, but how could this band not use TelePrompters? 

“Half-Step” and “Bird Song,” a pair of Garcia classics, suffered from the need to share Jerry’s vocals.  This has been the dilemma of every outfit formed since his death.  How much freedom do you give the lead guitarist?  They’ve tried having two guitarists or some other instrument assume the lead.  However, it appears that Bobby and Phil still call the shots on stage.  Understandably, they reserve the right to lead the band or split vocal duties.  After all, it was their band.  But the Grateful Dead, for all of their lack of convention, were still a rock n’ roll band—a damn fine one, I might add.  However, their trademark exploratory jams were still led by their lead guitarist.  All the hired guns that have played in Jerry’s place, even the most creative ones like Jimmy Herring or even jack-of-all-trades Warren Haynes, weren’t allowed to fully spread their wings.  While I am sure this was not a conscious decision, the remaining members of the band are still clearly trying to reconcile honoring Jerry’s legacy and having freedom to create new magic onstage.

Back to the music.  Bobby’s voice and lyrical memory improved for the set-closing “Good Lovin” and the momentum continued after the break with “Jack Straw.”  Rather than simply build up to the climactic jam that precedes the final verse, the band broke things down and built them up a bit.  “The Wheel” lost some steam and became more the sing-along than rock-solid anthem.  The same could be said for “Uncle John’s Band.”  However, the night’s lone new song, “Welcome To The Dance,” was actually quite good and brought some fresh energy.  “Unbroken Chain” was the treat that it always is and Kadelick’s solos were certainly better than the one’s Jerry played when the song was finally performed during his final year.  At one point, he actually referenced the studio version on From The Mars Hotel which sadly is still the definitive version. 

If you had told me in the first set that they would end with four Bobby tunes in a row, I would have laughed.  But he totally raised his game on “Satisfaction.”    When it appeared that the encore would be next, “Let It Grow” began.  This was a great curveball to throw in and a well-performed version to boot.  Bobby’s voice showed a little wear during “Sugar Magnolia,” but it was still solid.  “Johnny B. Goode”was a fitting old-school encore.  By all accounts, the band continued to improve during the subsequent shows in Connecticut and New Jersey, but I am happy to report that, as a veteran of 138 Dead shows before Jerry’s passing, I walked out into the chilly city night with a smile on my face. 

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