I remember back in the late ’80s, when the big invasion came after “Touch of Grey,” Garcia used to talk about the Dead possibly being shut out of many venues because of bad fan behavior. He thought the band might have to come up with some alternate way of getting their music to the people — including the notion of setting up shop in theater for a week or two and perhaps broadcasting concerts to movie theaters (as they had for their Halloween Radio City show in 1980).
Through the years, a handful of Dead shows were televised, including the epic Closing of Winterland in ’78, New Years ’85 and ’87 and the Summer Solstice show from Shoreline in ’89. But for some reason, the Dead and live telecasts never felt like that good a mix to me. It’s as if they added a whole ’nother layer of stress to the musicians and it became more difficult for them to relax and play their best. It wasn’t merely the presence of cameras, though, as the band certainly became used to that on their late ’80s tours, which often had a live in-house video component — but were not broadcast.
Ah, but things are so much different now. “TV” is just as likely to be the Internet today, with niche audiences of varying sizes watching on their home computers — from laptops to mega-models — or hooked into their big-screen televisions and enormous hi-fi systems. I first got into watching concerts online a couple of summers ago when iClips.net broadcast a slew of great festivals over the Internet, free of charge. Besides a show by The Dead, I saw sets by everyone from Govt. Mule to Jackie Greene to Yonder Mountain String Band, and also a whole bunch of bands I’d barely heard of, some of whom were quite good. Then there was the fantastic all-star 70th birthday celebration for Levon Helm a year ago — I watched that from beginning to end in the privacy of my little home office, cranking it up as the mood hit me. Good times!
Video is becoming an increasingly important medium for many bands, both as a keen promotional tool and also as a way to further “monetize” (one of my least favorite words) concerts and whole tours. Take Widespread Panic, for example: On June 14 and 15 they are streaming concerts from Austin for just five bucks; and June 24-26, the group’s three sold-out shows from Red Rocks will be available for streaming through iClips.net for $9.99 per night and all three shows for $24.99. If the Grateful Dead had done this, I probably would have bought every show of every tour (and been even broker today than I am).
Which brings us to Furthur and their big Internet experiment of June 7. Broadcasting from Bob Weir’s new state-of-the-art TRI (Tamalpais Research Institute) Studios complex in Marin County, Furthur laid down a very impressive two-and-a-half-hour set for folks who plunked down $19.95 for the privilege of seeing the group way up close (in HD!) and with clear and powerful sound.
I was particularly interested to watch the TRI Furthur show, because it came right on the heels of my seeing the band’s two nights at Shoreline Amphitheatre (south of SF) just a few days earlier, so the real concert experience was still fresh in my mind. I LOVED both of those Shoreline shows, with the first of the two (6/3) probably the best I’ve seen the group play. (Check out the “Playing > Uncle John’s > Morning Dew > UJB reprise > Playing reprise” sequence—a most worthy 21st century descendant of its few early ’70s forebears. You can hear a version here.) They were locked-in and having a great time, and their energy, passion and obvious affection for each other and the music they created together was downright infectious. Have I mentioned before that I kinda like this band?
However, I was a tad concerned that watching a show on my 20-inch flat-screen computer monitor and listening through my small (but decent) desktop speakers would be a bit of a bring-down. An hour or so before show time, I tried to hook a laptop into my much larger living room system (42-inch flat screen, excellent hi-fi) with an HDMI cable I bought earlier in the afternoon, but for some reason I could get picture but no sound. (I am, frankly, a moron when it comes to such things.) Given more time and a couple of phone calls I probably could’ve worked it out, but with the minutes and seconds literally counting down on my screen until the concert was set to begin (at 6 p.m. West Coast time), I panicked and decided to watch on my computer instead. I’ll figure it out for the next one.
Once the concert started, I found I didn’t miss the big screen and booming sound too much. The close-up camera work was stunning (the show was directed by Justin Kreutzmann, Billy’s son, who has done much fine video work through the years) and the sound mix, by Dennis “Wiz” Leonard (a Dead scene veteran dating back to the dawn of the ’70s) was just about perfect. In fact, the experience reminded me a lot of the Friday Shoreline show where—ticket goddesses be forever praised!—I had second row center seats; my closest ever at that venue.
The Webcast was so incredibly intimate, showing us in amazing detail how these guys interact with each other musically, what each person adds to the gestalt, how they communicate with little glances and nods and smiles. It was illuminating to see how the Phil-Bob-John front line effortlessly weaves their parts in and out of each other, and also to finally be able to watch the wondrous Jeff Chimenti in close-up, rippling across the ivories as he moved from piano to organ to Rhodes to synth. Drummer Joe Russo was, as always, all over his kit—like two drummers rolled into one at times. And though I felt singers Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Becker were mixed slightly low, their contributions to the big-chorus tunes (“Uncle John’s,” “The Wheel,” “I Know You Rider,” etc.) made for a beautiful vocal blend. (It’s interesting to note that because the concert was in a controlled studio environment rather than out on the road somewhere, more fragile high-end studio microphones could be used, making the vocals that much better.)
I found the 13-song set to be extremely satisfying, and as consistently well-played as the Shoreline shows. The combination of “Crazy Fingers” and “Jack Straw” got the group up to full speed quickly, and Bob’s recent “Big Bad Blues” was a pleasant surprise early on (I’d never heard Hunter’s words so clearly). There was inspired jamming before and after “The Wheel” (which was great, as always) and also inside “Unbroken Chain.” It was a privilege to get the full “Terrapin” suite (denied us at Shoreline!)—in the old days we waited breathlessly for the big “Terrapin Station” instrumental bombast; now I’m always most anticipating Joe’s drum wizardry during “Terrapin Flyer” (and he never disappoints). Another treat was the nicely sung and evocative “Black Peter,” which contained long guitar and organ breaks that added much to the mood of the song. (I am, however, voting NO on reprising the bridge after those solos—once is quite enough!)
OK, I didn’t give the concert my full attention every second. We had a barbecue going during the first part. I would wander into the kitchen for this and that. During “The Wheel” and “Unbroken Chain,” I faced my speakers out the back window and listened in my sunny back yard (at last—the golden warmth that had been promised during the opening Friday Shoreline song, “Here Comes the Sun”!). My wife, a friend and I ate strawberries and soaked in the rays as the music blared. That’s just one of the luxuries of “watching” on the Internet—you don’t have to see it. Another is not having idiots in front of me with cell phones taking pictures of the band and each other every second.
My backyard idyll ended when, in the middle of “The Other One,” the sound suddenly vanished! There had been one or two split-second drop-outs previously, but this was serious. I ran into the house and was greeted by a message on the screen telling me that the connection had been lost. Yikes! After waiting in silence a couple of minutes for it to come back on its own, I simply rebooted and picked up the connection again. (I know some other folks had more constant and serious sound problems. With the diversity of computers and connections out there, that does not surprise me. It’s a much more fragile ecosystem than broadcast TV, to say the least.)
To their credit, the musicians’ energy was unflagging for the entire two-and-a-half solid hours of music. The sound was studio-quality throughout. Visually, one of the built-in frustrations of televised music for me is that my brain always has its own idea of who it wants to be seeing at a given moment based on how I’m listening, but the director’s choices don’t always match my brain’s (and the director always wins!). Notwithstanding some strange camera chaos during “Terrapin” (I think it was that tune…can’t check the nonexistent “tape”) and overzealous fast-cutting on “I Know You Rider,” I thought Justin K. did a superb job of showing us this hard-working and skilled band in action—moving from player to player in an artful way, but also lingering long enough for us to hone in on specifics.
All in all, I felt Furthur at TRI was a highly successful venture and worth the 20 bucks. Whether it was successful financially on the band’s end is information I’m not privy to. I hope so. It was a pretty involved production. Of course, if they wanted to “monetize” it more, they could release it as a DVD now, and I’d buy that, too. With any luck, though, this is just a beginning. They should do this more often —maybe two or three shows in a row over a weekend; invite friends to join them; play acoustic sets… the possibilities are limitless.
If you caught Furthur on the Internet, how did you like it? Have you watched much live music on the Web?