Going Furthur on New Year’s Eve
OK, I think we can officially say that the “show me” phase of Furthur’s trial period is over. This band has got the goods, for sure, and they definitely seem to be on a roll. Playing a handful of well-received dates on the East Coast during early and mid-December, then tuning up for New Year’s with a couple of “stealth” shows at the tiny Mill Valley Masonic Hall, the band went into the Bill Graham Civic shows with a good head of steam—it’s great to see everyone looking so relaxed and happy, and speaking for myself, it’s delightful to see the group playing in smaller venues than the mega-halls that The Dead played in last spring.
Now, I did something I’ve almost never done since the early ’80s—I intentionally didn’t follow what the group played on the East Coast or the Masonic Hall because I thought it would be more fun to be surprised when I got to Civic on New Year’s Eve. That’s right, I also didn’t go to the show on the 30th, opting instead to see Jackie Greene and Jemimah Puddleduck (featuring Mark Karan) at the intimate Great American Music Hall that night instead—an awesome show as it turned out.
Photo: Dave Clark / daveclarklive.net © 2009
I did hear about the Furthur show on the 30th from friends who attended, and every report was glowing, so I didn’t go into New Year’s with the completely blank slate I’d hoped to—but all the better to not wish for “Scarlet-Fire” and “China Cat-Rider” and a few of the other great songs they played at that show.
The weather gods were with us this year—it was cool but clear both nights; no rain in sight, and people seemed remarkably easy-going from what I could see (which is not always the case on New Year’s Eve, to say the least). I managed to land a nice spot for my group of three in the back row of the loge, behind the soundboard. Man, I can remember stressing over trying to save something like 16 seats for my crowd at Dead shows; now we’re down to a Power Trio? Oh well, their loss. The place filled up slowly, but considering the show started 40 minutes late (tsk, tsk), by the time the music started, it was packed from the side of the floor up to the rafters. I’ve seen it more crowded, for sure—in fact I’ve seen it obscenely crowded—but this definitely looked like there wasn’t room for many more to squeeze in there comfortably.
I called the “Shakedown” opener (thank you, thank you) and immediately my eyes were drawn to the right side of the stage (do we call it “the John side” now?) and… WTF? Somehow, in the reports of the previous night’s show, my friends had neglected to tell me that there are now a pair of ladies singing with the band! Wow! Their names are Zoe Ellis—the sister of original RatDog sax ace Dave Ellis and a veteran of the Phil & Friends lineup featuring Jorma Kaukonen a million years ago—and Sunshine Garcia Becker, no relation to either Sunshine Kesey or Jerry Garcia. And they sounded great, filling out the group’s vocal sound on most songs—when you could hear them. For my money, they could have been turned up much more in the mix, ’cause this group, great as it is, still needs help in the vocal area, and these women are ready, willing and able to provide that support. I say, let ’em fly!
The first set had many high points. The “Shakedown” was solid and funky; the “Jack Straw” was beautifully developed in the middle; I love the more Merl Haggard-ized “Mama Tried” they’ve been playing for a while; and John K. handled “Candyman” nicely (though I can’t say he made me truly believe “that the Candyman’s in town”). I thought the “Loose Lucy” dragged a bit because of Bob’s insistence on stretching out the spaces between each vocal line, but once it got to the choruses, it soared. And yes, gentlemen, I do “thank you for a real good time,” once again! “Viola Lee Blues” was a nice late-set surprise, and unlike most of the versions I’ve seen in recent years, this one was self-contained (i.e. no other songs tucked into it between verses). Which isn’t to say the jams didn’t go way out and far away from the song; they did, and in my view not always that purposefully—some of the jamming felt a little unfocussed, a complaint I’ve rarely had with this lineup. But the way they miraculously returned to “Viola Lee” after going so far afield was wondrous, and then the set-ending “Truckin’” was a perfect closer that got everybody singin’ along. This party was on!
People seemed buzzed and happy out in the hallways between sets—yep, it’s definitely New Year’s Eve! The harsh hall lighting was a drag (gone are the days when Bill Graham’s troops used to put colored cellophane over the hall lights at Kaiser!), so I quickly returned to the interior cocoon, where all was mellow and beautiful. Seems like they were playing cool music between sets, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what it was—that’s a good thing. It felt right.
Set Two started with a bang: “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower”; always great to hear and these versions were all excellent, especially the “Slipknot.” “Cassidy” came next, and though I missed Bob having a harmony partner for the verses (ladies?), it was certainly very well-achieved, with a long, graceful build-up during the jam, then a sustained crest at the top, before sliding back to the denouement; sweet. “The Wheel” was a perfect choice for New Year’s Eve, of course, and this time the full complement of singers really added a lot of power. Out of the song the group went into a fantastically variegated jam that went hither and yon, there and a back, inside and outside—all over the place!—before sliding into a really fine “Dark Star,” again self-contained. Here, the jamming was confident and assertive; one of the best versions I’ve heard of that one in a while.
And out of the ashes of that comes… wait a minute… no, it can’t be… but it can’t be anything else… YES!... It’s the familiar opening strains of Pink Floyd’s “Time” from Dark Side of the Moon, a tune that’s as much a part of the collective DNA of most of us as a lot of Dead songs. What an amazing choice! (And the fact that I hadn’t looked at setlists from previous Furthur shows allowed me to be completely surprised!) Jay and Joe had the drums on the intro down perfectly, John K, was hitting those ringing David Gilmour tones, and it built and built until that moment when the voices come in and then…WOW: the ladies took the first lines and wailed ’em! What a great moment! Then Phil took the Gilmour “answer” lines so the girls (please, can I call ’em “the girls,” in honor of Jackie and Gloria?) could do the “oohs” and “aahs” or whatever it is that accompanies that part of the song. We already knew that John can “play” Jerry; well, he also nailed Gilmour’s part in “Time,” sending his heavily reverb-ed solo to the upper reaches of the hall… and beyond—breathtaking! And then, sweet as honey, “Uncle John’s Band” to close out the second set.
Dave Clark / daveclarklive.net © 2009
What? Why aren’t they leaving the stage? The little red digital clock behind Phil’s rig says its past 11:30! But I guess there was one more song on the list (didn’t expect there to be quite so much jamming, eh boys?), because out of nowhere comes John K. (go, Johnny, go!) singing a freakishly speedy “After Midnight”—thematically, a stupendous choice for the pre-midnight set, with extra points for the Garcia connection! But they really rushed through it, with barely a solo. It was still cool, but they left the stage at 19 minutes to midnight, barely enough time to get a drink or find a friend or do much of anything.
Then, at about five until midnight, the lights went down, the howls from the crowd went up, and smoke started to rise from the area of the floor right behind the soundboard and spotlights hit four mirror balls. Music started to pour out of the speakers—it was Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” I’m told; I have no memory of it because I was focused on whatever the hell was rising very slowly right in front of me, from the smoke below. All of sudden there’s the familiar horn fanfare of “La Marseillaise,” but every person there knows they ain’t playin’ the French national anthem over the P.A.—it’s the opening of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”! What a perfect way to usher in a new decade! Rising in front of us we first saw a girl dressed in white “New Year’s” finery, but it wasn’t until she was directly at our level that I realized she was standing on an enormous grinning silver skull, crowned with a wreath of roses, with red lights for eyes! The crowd went appropriately berserk, and as the Beatles’ anthem continued, the skull—20-year old Deadhead-since-birth Emily Sunderland looking very regal standing atop it—cruised high above the heads of the people massed on the floor on its way to the stage. There, the skull and our New Year’s Girl were greeted by Father Time—Bill Walton!—there was the countdown from “10” and then the giant balloon drop! Happy New Year, y’all! Hugs and kisses all around. Noisemakers and horns rattling and honking! The skull then ascended to a spot above the stage, where it remained for the rest of the night, its red eyes shining.
Unfortunately, there was no band onstage when the New Year’s moment came, so with “All You Need Is Love” long ended and no one ready to play, the next couple of minutes of pandemonium were, alas, completely unaccompanied by music; a darn shame! When the band did finally all assemble with their instruments, it wasn’t the “Sugar Magnolia” I’m sure most were expecting, but “The Golden Road”—a fantastic choice, I thought: “Come join the party every day!” From there, it was one good song after another. “Let It Grow” was jammed out wonderfully and eventually led to “Cryptical Envelopment.” I can’t help it, I always think of Jerry on that one… but in a good way. This, too, was extended nicely and ended up at “Born Cross-Eyed” (which I swear they play at every show I go to; not that I’m complaining). That, then, led into the anticipated and mildly teased “Other One,” back in to the “Cryptical” (I always like it when they “finish” it), and then what for me was probably the emotional highlight of the night: “So Many Roads," beautifully sung and played by John. I love that song, and to hear it played with so much assurance (and affection) was really satisfying.
I could have gone home a very happy man after that, but there was still a colossal “Saint Stephen” to go, followed by “The Eleven” (after all, it is still “the season of what now”) and finally “Not Fade Away.” Phil was warm and optimistic in his “donor rap,” noting that he really believed that 2010 will be a great year; jeez, I sure hope so. And then, because there could be no other encore, even though every one of us was prepared for it not to be the encore ’cause you gotta go with the flow, whatever it is… “Sugar Magnolia,” as rockin’ and spectacular as you could want it to be, every person in the place doin’ the hippy-hippy-shake as if we hadn’t already been dancing for five hours.
Didn’t see a single frown on the way out; everyone was sort of floating a few inches off the ground, as it should be. It was a glorious night and the perfect way to start the New Year and New Decade. Do you realize how lucky we are to still be doing this… together? LOVE is all you need!!!
12/31/09, Bill Graham Civic Center, SF
#1: Shakedown Street, Jack Straw, Mama Tried, Candyman, Loose Lucy, Viola Lee Blues > Truckin'
#2: Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower, Cassidy, The Wheel> jam> Dark Star> Time> Uncle John's Band, After Midnight
#3 (midnight set): Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)> Let it Grow> Cryptical Envelopment> Born Cross-Eyed> The Other One> Cryptical Envelopment> So Many Roads, St. Stephen> The Eleven> Not Fade Away E: Sugar Magnolia
12/30/09, Bill Graham Civic Center, SF
Jam> Here Comes Sunshine> Bertha, Promised Land, Mississippi Half Step> Deep Elem Blues, Lost Sailor> St. of Circumstance, Cosmic Charlie
Playing in the Band> jam> Eyes of the World> Scarlet Begonias> Fire on the Mountain> King Solomon's Marbles, Unbroken Chain, Standing on the Moon> China Cat Sunflower> I Know You Rider E: Terrapin Station