Dragon Power! Furthur Shake It Down-Down for New Year’s
By Blair Jackson
In the Grateful Dead days, it was always fun to see the band after they hadn’t played for a few weeks, because even inveterate set list analysts were hard-pressed to predict what they might play the first night back, and whatever rotational habits they might have gotten into during a tour had similarly been obliterated. It was a clean slate. Furthur already mixes up their enormous repertoire in more interesting ways than the Dead ever did, so going into their first-ever three-night New Year’s run at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic (the group’s first shows since late November), we really didn’t have a clue what to expect. Would the first night be a tame warm-up for the other two, the band still getting their sea legs back, settling back into their groove?
Photo: Ethan Hoffman ©2012
Uh, no. Apparently not. Instead, Furthur stepped out onto that familiar stage and proceeded to tear it up from the first downbeat of the powerful opening jam, which eventually exploded into “Help on the Way.” Oh, I see, these guys are serious. The first of several twists in the show occurred when the conventional “Slipknot!” jam did not materialize after “Help”—Phil played a few notes of it, but JK was not having it, and the others didn’t follow Phil’s brief walk into that territory, either. Rather, they went into some of the types of jamming spaces that usually occupy the middle of that tune, but soon went off course completely before somewhat awkwardly landing at a moody “Estimated Prophet,” which properly welcomed our many out-of-town visitors to California’s “burning shore.” By the time the jam after that one was unfolding, it was abundantly clear that the band was playing with tremendous confidence and flair—the jams were going to unpredictable places, and everyone in the group seemed locked into each other and the crowd, which was more boisterous and enthusiastic than one might have expected for a first show. So, it felt as if we were already mid-second set (song-wise), yet what came next was an old GD first-set standby, and it turned into one of the highlights of the night—“Brown-Eyed Women” raised the intensity a full notch (who knew?), and the show rarely came down from that level for the rest of the night. The first set also had a nicely developed “Cassidy,” one of those versions of “Tennessee Jed” that gets everybody singin’, George Harrison’s “Any Road” (one of my faves) and, to cap it, a generous “Weather Report Suite.” It was one of the longer first sets of the year, and one of the best, I’d venture.
The second set kept the warm and friendly vibe going with a tremendous “Box of Rain” opener. This band has been opening up the song’s middle solo for a while now, but I hadn’t heard one that was as expansive as this; beautifully done. “Big Bad Blues” has developed into a solid number, with its different parts—some slinky, some highly rhythmic—all flowing together well by now, and JK has found a perfect gnarly tone for his solos. The middle part of the set was even better than the song list indicates: “China Cat,” “Scarlet,” “Truckin’” and “New Speedway Boogie” all sparkled with inventive playing outside the norm, and it sounded as if every person there was joining in on the big choruses, which gloriously filled the big room from floor to rafters. I felt as if I were back at Kaiser, or Winterland even. It gave me chills at one point. The closing instrumental coda of “Unbroken Chain” (unique to this band) provided one of my favorite buildups of the night, and that was followed by a devastating “Standing on the Moon,” which has become perhaps Bob’s best ballad. “Goin’ Down the Road” got us back into boogieing and sing-along mode, and it had a twist at the end: Rather than going into the instrumental “We Bid You Goodnight” section that usually follows the song, this time, right on the beat, the band entered into the long-lost “Slipknot!” so cruelly abandoned at the show’s start. “Franklin’s” was then a satisfying and unifying closer; Bob’s near-perfect “Baby Blue” encore a meditation to send us home.
A tough act to follow? Well, depends on what you’re looking for. The first night was right in my wheelhouse (as they say) in terms of song selection and overall vibe. If jammy/spacy is more your thing (it was for me with the Grateful Dead; less so with post- JG bands), you might have preferred the second night. I felt the playing on 12/30 was as passionate and committed as it was on 12/29, and there were many strong tunes in both sets.
The first set on 12/30 served up great variety, with kickin’ versions of “Jack Straw” (with a great middle jam that felt fresh) and “Bertha” to start. The group then shifted gears, easing into a breezy, loping “Eyes of the World”; a nice surprise to get that so early in the show. The outro from that led to “The Music Never Stopped, which contained one of the best jams of the night. “Cold Rain & Snow” and “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance” were all performed a little slower than I like (especially “Saint”), but I certainly can’t fault the playing in any way, and I still dug them. But it was nice to then get a zippy and wild “Deal” to end the set.
Set Two started out promisingly with an unexpected combo— “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” with blistering solos by JK, into a raucous “Passenger.” I really like the way John sings “Wharf Rat,” but it seems to bog down during the long bridge (“But I’ll get back on my feet someday ”)—it provides the song’s most beautiful moments, but Garcia himself would have trouble keeping to the glacial pacing this band prefers for that section. The rest of the set consisted of seven songs from the Dead’s ’66-’67 period: “New Potato Caboose,” “Cryptical Envelopment,” “The Other One,” “Caution,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “The Eleven” and “Lovelight.” (Only “King Solomon’s Marbles” from 1975, placed between “Caution” and “Death Don’t…” interrupted what could have been a list from the Carousel Ballroom in the winter of ’68.) There was fierce jamming throughout (especially on “The Other One” and “Caution”), a full-blown, brain-melting “space” after “New Potato Caboose,” and also a bit of unfocussed searching along the way; it happens. The “Lovelight” was brief but spirited (I don’t recall much of a guitar solo—unusual on a night when JK was shredding on just about everything). For the encore, it was back to the warm sing-along vibe of the 12/29 show—“Touch of Grey,” about as good as that song gets these days, leaving smiles all around as we walked into the cool night air.
New Year’s Eve Day broke sunny and clear in San Francisco, so line duty for the Big Night was pleasant as can be weatherwise, though that didn’t help much with the inescapable anxiety that usually accompanies the long wait: Where will I end up once the doors open? Am I farther back in the line that I was last night? Is there going to be greater competition for seats upstairs because of more graying Heads coming to just this show? Oh, the things we find to worry about! But to me, it’s worth it to put in the time and effort to get that great spot. Line time and inside pre-show time are traditions I cherish. Every day/night before the first note has its own rhythm and character, just as every show does. All three days, people seemed to be cheerful in line and inside. That’s what good shows will do.
The band had played so well the first two shows, and there were so many great songs still out there waiting to be tapped, I was confident that the band would come through for us and the large audience of Heads listening in on Sirius Radio. And boy, did they ever! I don’t know how it sounded on the radio, but being there was so magical, as the group whipped out one great tune after another over the course of three varied and unpredictable sets.
The first set was another hot one, starting with a bangin’ “Golden Road” (always a good time) and then changing gears for a marvelously executed, uptempo “Cosmic Charlie”—after 32 years, they’ve finally gotten the vocals together; yay! JK never fails to deliver “Althea” with authority and élan, and two songs later, his “High Time” dug into the deep emotion of every verse and managed to tame a party-hungry New Year’s crowd eager to rock ’n’ roll. The JK deniers will always be out there, but for me the verdict has been in for a long time: This guy “gets it” on every level, and he’s amazingly adept at bringing Jerry’s songs to life as both a guitarist and singer. This run of shows was probably the best I’ve ever seen him play. “Shakedown Street” was a surprise late-set funkathon, and then “Viola Lee Blues”—no sectioned sandwich this time, just the full portion— was the perfect psychedelic bookend to the “Golden Road.”
The halls during the break were buzzing with excited, colorfully decked-out revelers stumbling about. I love that so many women dress up specially for New Year’s Eve, saving their glittery tops and dresses or brightest tie-dyes for the occasion. Folks you would never expect to put on silly party hats were blowing horns and rattling noisemakers, and with each set break the crowd got a little wilder, a bit more frantic. The high quality of the music—and not just the significance of the night—surely put everyone in a good mood.
Set Two of 12/31 turned out to be my favorite of the three-night run (though both sets of 12/29 gave it a run for the money). How can you go wrong with a set that opens with “Morning Dew,” JK completely confident from beginning to end? The jam that came next eventually rolled into “Dark Star,” and this, too, was marked by bold assurance as the ensemble navigated the jam’s convoluted terrain. A jaunty “Mason’s Children” emerged from the chaos; then the players wended their way through various other strange tangents before arriving back at the second verse of “Dark Star.” “Mountain Song,” which has popped up in key spots all year long, proved to be a sturdy bridge between “Dark Star” and a triumphal “I Know You Rider.” I thought that might signal the end of that set, but no, there was more to come: a near-perfect “St. Stephen” dropped right into “Fire on the Mountain.” Incredible! But that left just 30 minutes until the Midnight Madness.
Make that 20 minutes. At 10 ’til midnight, the house lights went down again and loud noises started emanating from the quad sound system. (Two large speaker stacks hung above each side of the rear balcony, but were barely used at the first two shows.) Frightening thunder cracks boomed through the hall. There were rumbles, growls, snorts and finally what sounded like the angry or anguished cries of some great creature. An angular, très moderne orchestral composition called "Arcana," written in the mid-1920s by the great French composer Edgard Varèse, pumped through the P.A. at deafening volume and added to the unfolding sonic drama. Suddenly, red smoke billowed from a black-curtained area hanging from the ceiling above the front of the center balcony. Slowly, the beast came into view just below the curtains: An enormous, fearsome dragon—30 feet from open jaws to curled tail-tip, eyes glowing, smoke rising from its ruby-red throat—was threatening to lay waste to us all! Yikes! Run for your lives! Or better yet, take another hit!
just before midnight on New Year's Eve.
Photo: Regan McMahon ©2012
But, what’s this? A comely blond maiden in shiny, diaphanous togs, miraculously ascended from a spot near the soundboard up to the dragon’s level above the crowd! She bravely straddled the loathsome monster, which shrieked its displeasure. As the Varèse piece reached a dissonant climax, it was abruptly replaced by the opening riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” and our heroine—now firmly in control of the dragon—began a slow journey toward the stage, high above the crowd, on the spiny back of the beast, showering the crowd below her with handfuls of red rose petals. She was greeted at the stage by children tossing petals down onto the revelers, a brave knight of some sort, and the towering figure of Father Time—good ol’ Bill Walton, who has now played that role almost as many times as Bill Graham did. Once safely on the stage, the maiden received a big hug from Father Time and Furthur leaped into—what else?—“Sugar Magnolia.” Bob spaced the lyrics early on but nobody cared; we all had him covered! Hundreds of balloons fell from the ceiling and the dragon rose slowly to a spot above the front of the stage and turned its giant frame so it appeared to be menacing the crowd. It hung there the rest of the night, occasionally belching great clouds of white smoke—its eyes shining red, then blue, green and yellow—as the band played on below. (To watch Jay Blakesberg's excellent video of the dragon flight, the midnight moment and "Sugar Magnolia," go to www.furthur.net!)
It’s hard to believe the band still had the energy to play another 90 minutes (or that we had the stamina to dance another 90), but hey, it’s New Year’s and no time to be a weenie. The third set supplied plenty of fuel for us, too: a flowing “Playing in the Band” that segued into a good-vibes “Uncle John’s Band,” Phil’s dynamic “Colors of the Rain” (some cool jamming in that one), “Born Cross-Eyed” (still totally odd after all these years), another excuse to sing at the top of our lungs with “The Wheel,” and finally the “Playing” reprise—always a satisfying set-ender in my book. For the encore, I fully expected “One More Saturday Night,” perhaps in tandem with some other tune, but instead we got the full “Terrapin” suite—20-plus minutes of pure bliss to send us home. Loved the way Joe Russo’s drums got thrown around the quad speakers during “Terrapin Flyer.”
What a special night. What a special week. Everyone played and sang fantastically well. This is a pretty good little band they got goin’. Wish you all could have been there!
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Here’s a link to Trent T.’s superb audience recording of 12/31/11.
Here’s Nak Guy’s cool aud. of 12/30/11.
And here’s Nak Guy’s aud. of 12/29/11.
Also, video of many of the songs from each night are on YouTube.
mailed out by GDTS TOO.
Finally, the dragon motif appeared on the custom New Year’s Eve ticket (pictured) and a number of beautiful posters and T-shirts created for this series of shows, representing the upcoming Chinese lunar New Year transition from the Year of the Hare to the Year of the Dragon. I wondered if we might see Flash—the Hog Farm’s traditional parade dragon from GD Chinese New Year shows past—at midnight. I certainly did not expect the wondrous and completely mind-blowing spectacle we got. Yowza!
For more photos of the band and the dragon (including the making of said beast) check out Furthur's page on Facebook and also go to www.furthur.net!