Furthur: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA 12/29 -12/31/11

If you happen to be one of the lucky ones to have caught Furthur’s soon to be infamous NYE run there’s no doubt you’re still glowing. Over the course of three exceptionally played shows, Furthur fully took on the identity of a building oceanic ground swell. It was a true masterpiece in all aspects that not only sent a message to the greater jamband community, but respected and honored the storied tradition built by the one and only Grateful Dead.

Thursday’s offering was the loosest night of the stand with an obvious absence of the pre-weekend crowd. With the only non sold out evening of the run, Furthur took the stage with a bouncy warm up jam and proceeded to drop right into a hot “Help on the Way”, arguably one of the most revered openers in their vast catalog.

While “Slipknot!” followed, it wasn’t the usual melodic jam seasoned listeners are used too. It was rather quick and not quite as pronounced, although as soon as the notes to “Estimated Prophet” filled the Civic we all knew why. Carried at the end by several trademark Bob Weir “Haaa’s!” as a few thousand strong sang “California!” as loud as could be the rest of Furthur’s first set was tight, fun, and showcased interesting improvisational moments throughout every song selection. This was perhaps the singular most salient theme of the run, a theme that continues the progression of Furthur as a band since their first shows back in 2009.
Some detractors and critics have called the band flat, unoriginal in their playing, and unoriginal in their interpretation of the classic Grateful dead catalogue. Sorry folks. Those criticisms are completely unwarranted, especially when put up against these three shows. Each song offered, simply noted in just the initial first set of night one, showcased unique jams and unique takes on these classic tunes. The jam in “Cassidy” is a great example as is the “Weather Report Suite” > “Let It Grow”. Both are clear examples of not only the superior playing of Furthur, but of how well this band is putting their own stamp on this timeless music.

Thursday’s second set built a step from set one opening with a great Phil Lesh led “Box of Rain”. An interesting pairing in “China Cat Sunflower” > “Scarlet Begonias” was a nice treat not just for the love of the songs and how well they were executed, but in the interesting delivery of these two particular songs that are normally segued with two other classics. “Any Road” and “Big Bad Blues” added that unique Furthur feel to the set before the welcome notes of “Slipknot!” brought us all back from the beginning of the night culminating in a lively Phil led take on “Franklin’s Tower”.

After Thursday’s effort the buzz in Furthur camp was alive and well. People were stoked and it showed amongst fans Friday afternoon and early evening as night two got ready for liftoff. The Bill Graham Civic was visibly fuller compared to Thursday night and that special NYE energy was being shared in costume, conversation, and comradery throughout the greater scene.
After having left us all with heads full of Dead from the previous evening, Furthur took the stage with Bob Weir starting the night with a solid “Jack Straw”. Although Jerry Garcia favorites like “Bertha”, “Eyes of the World” and “Deal” dotted the set it was the Bobby tunes like the opener, “Music Never Stopped” and the classic segued pairing of “Lost Sailor” >”Saint of Circumstance” that stood out the most.

If there was any set to throw off my framing of this run as a near perfect buildup from set-to-set it would have to be set two from Friday night. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” opened, serving as a nice surprise that almost seemed as though it was a bonus once “Passenger” followed. “Wharf Rat” also seemed surprising in its number three position for the set although the first three songs fit very well together as a triad and then came the Anthem of the Sun vibe that took the venue into alternate realms.

“New Potato Caboose” brought us there and was followed by a truly slick take on “Cryptical Envelopment”. With the energy of a twenty-something, an absolutely huge bass bomb by Phil was dropped, and a soaring take on “The Other One” sent the Civic ablaze. “The Other One” proceeded to bleed right into “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)”, which might’ve been the highlight of the night. Bobby leading on the vocals, Phil walking his bass perfectly to a steady drum beat from Joe Russo, spacey keys from Jeff Chimenti, all revolving around an absolutely ripping guitar from John Kadlecik. It was a moment.

I’m not usually one ever looking for a chance to catch my breath at a show when the music is taking people to such new heights, but at the end of “Caution” it would’ve made sense. The energy of the venue was through the roof, but “Caution” didn‘t stop the jam sequence as it flowed right into Joe Russo and his completely unreal percussive nature slaying the groove on “King’s Solomon’s Marbles”. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” was finally that moment for physical rest, although not mentally as it was a passionate take on the old school tune. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” eventually rolled right into a nice jam, “The Eleven”, and then right into “Turn on Your Lovelight”. “Touch of Grey” was a fitting one off encore as much as the Bob Dylan classic “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was on night one.

By Saturday the shared feeling among many attendees thus far was “what else are they gonna do to top night’s one and two?” Both shows were stellar. Both shows showcased a unique take on the storied music of this beloved band that continues to one of the most distinctive, influential bands in the history of rock and roll. It was obvious that a few choice tunes were expected on this evening. While such songs were played, and overall the song selections of the band couldn’t have been any better, it was really the placement of the chosen selections, the improvisational selections accompanying each tune, all housed around welcoming another year in “legendary” status that really set the night off. After all, as Phil would later share, it is The Year of the Dragon after all.

Again, building, building, building is the best way to lay out these seven magnificent sets of music. Of course there were the few bumps and bruises through the run just as there’s always a little something, but truly they were nothing to take away from what was experienced. Even Bobby’s guitar hiccup during the first set of night three’s “Althea” was easily lost after John K’s second half of the song melted all.

“The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion” was a great selection to start the night off and sent a message to us all about the impending transition that would take place over the next several hours. This set was mellow, but again perfect in placement and where it stood in terms of continuing from the earlier two shows and priming the crowd for the NYE festivities.

That is, until the break after “High Time” where one funky note was heard. Those that caught it, or have caught it elsewhere know exactly what’s coming and even though it initially felt like an odd placement that’s exactly why “Shakedown Street” was so perfect for that space and time.  At the end of the jam Phil caught John’s attention, who then caught Bobby before the signature Phil bomb signaling “Viola Lee Blues” kept the place dancing and shaking their bones till the set break.

When John K. sent the first notes to “Morning Dew” to open the next set another acknowledgement was made. A great choice as an opener to the set “Morning Dew” and the jam that followed got everyone back into mode from the set break before Phil started dancing with his bass lines again dropping perhaps the most famous of his signature beats in the opening notes to “Dark Star”.
The song itself is steeped in the deepest of Grateful Dead traditions, and while no one will ever be able to replicate the authenticity or complete magic that Jerry Garcia performed with these words from Robert Hunter the spirit of the song, what it did for so many then, and what it can still do in 2012 is fittingly heard in this Furthur take on the Grateful Dead masterpiece. For anyone out there arguing Furthur isn’t doing anything new or unique the Furthurcentric jams throughout the run, distinct offerings like “Colors of the Rain”, “Mountain Song”, “Any Road” and this take on “Dark Star” should bring you back around.

Then again the end of the set wasn’t too shabby either as “I Know You Rider” set the whole venue to another planet, for sure, and the melodic bounce of the “Fire” was again a perfect placement and perfect fit to break before welcoming in yet another year.

Darkness with the crackling of a thundercloud. It was loud, the crowd collectively smiled deviously. “What the hell is going on?” We knew it was going to be something special, and when smoke started pouring out from the weird black curtained object hanging from the venue ceiling it finally became clear- a dragon would soon be flying its way across the Bill Graham Civic! As a beautiful woman was hoisted up to fly the dragon to the stage, the only legendary animal of the Chinese calendar, she flew the smoke breathing animal towards the front of the stage where some family was waiting with the band as the notes to the Rolling Stone’s “Start Me Up” confused then ignited the crowd. As the dragon made its way closer to the stage another year was welcomed with a countdown and ball drop with a little classic Dead in “Sugar Magnolia”.

The third and final set was seamless and framed by a “Playing in the Band” to start, a beautiful “Uncle John’s Band” and “Wheel” thrown in there for good measure, with a “Playin’ Reprise” to finish it off. All of a sudden it was encore time and with a greeting and Donor Rap by Phil the crowd really let him (and Furthur) have it. It was so loud in the Civic you could just feel how thankful, emotional, and happy people were with the intentions Furthur had shared on this last night of 2011. However, we weren’t done yet as a full “Terrapin Suite” served as the lone encore with everyone of the band members sharing some special point of magic as the epic ensued. With the soaring background vocals of Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pherson, perfect keys from Jeff Chimenti, and three sets of glorious strings it was the quintessential cap on a magnificent show and glorious three night run. I’m still not sure how Joe Russo can procure as much sound as he does with only two arms, but somehow he does. I can safely say this show will not only satisfy seasoned Heads in the Dead universe, but it should make a few new fans as well.   

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