“Weeeeeee… LOVVVE You!” Furthur Rings in the New Year in SF
By Blair Jackson
Back in the Grateful Dead days, New Year’s Eve shows were sort a hit-or-miss. Always loaded with expectations, they sometimes fell a bit short for any number of reasons—though through the golden haze of memory, they all seemed like winners to me now! Anyway, one thing most veterans of Dead New Years runs will agree upon is that the show on the 30th was frequently “the hot show.” Maybe it’s because the band and crowd were always more relaxed and the atmosphere in the hall was so much less frenetic than the next night. Maybe it’s because they (and we) weren’t partied out (yet). Well, Furthur’s show on the 30th at the Bill Graham Civic fits nicely in that long tradition of exceptional shows on that date.
Civic Center Plaza was a sight to behold on that cold evening, with hundreds of ticketless hippies milling about near the large Christmas tree covered in white lights that stood a couple of hundreds yards away in front of majestic City Hall, which itself was lit up in stripes of red and green for the holidays. Once inside and ensconced in some seats near the top of the balcony directly opposite the stage, I faced my first and only real disappointment of the run: Alas, the band’s hometown fans were not going to revel in the psychedelic glory of Courtenay Pollack’s trippy tie-dye backdrop which graced the band’s last tour. In fact, it was a bare stage for the most part, no screens even (fine by me), with just an inflatable King Kong, clad in a tie-dye t-shirt, MSG-style (if you’ll recall those late ’80s shows there) hoisted above the stage—kinda strange, but also not obtrusive and, we assumed at the time, probably in keeping with the circus theme that had been in advertising for the shows and on the gold-foil tickets sold by the fine folks at GDTS-TOO (whom we pause momentarily to salute for another year of great service; nice to know there’s still one place where Ticketmaster doesn’t completely rule). Once the show started, though, it was clear from the first second of the “Shakedown” opener that came booming out of the crystal-clear sound system—no warm-up noodle necessary—that the light show was going to be a colorfully kinetic wonder. The whole Civic became a playground for the lights, with colorful “architectural” constructions across the stage and audience, changing by the second (or split-second)—these were the best lights I’ve seen accompany this particular band. Kudos to lighting director Preston Hoffman and his crew from Long Island-based A.G. Light & Sound for a job very well done, both nights (and all year long).
The band seemed fired up right out of the gate, and John Kadlecik’s first long solo of the night was another indication of what many have been observing at recent shows—he is increasingly willing to move away from his Garcia comfort zone to explore other timbres and approaches, and that is leading the group as a whole in some interesting new directions. Don’t get me wrong—there is still plenty of Jerry in his playing (and I am among those who believe he does it exceptionally). But some of the jams seem to be moving farther afield into more abstract spaces, both tonally and rhythmically as JK and Jeff Chimenti and Joe Russo assert their own personalities even more. The opening trio of “Shakedown” > “Estimated” > “Crazy Fingers” felt like the heart of a second set, with generous and assured jamming in all three, and the “Crazy Fingers” delivering that rippling sweetness you really want from that gorgeous tune. This was my first time hearing both Phil’s “Welcome to the Dance” and Bob’s “Seven Hills of Gold” in person (I’ve been following the whole year on archive.org audience recordings—many of them superb—and also have purchased a number of SBD FLAC downloads along the way), and this time out I was most impressed with “Welcome…” which had a couple of big, melodic jams the band leaned into confidently. “Seven Hills,” too, benefitted from a strong slide solo by JK and a nice flurry after the song, eventually steaming into a punchy “Lovelight” set closer. In mid-set, JK had led the band through snappy and energetic versions of “Cold Rain & Snow” (perfect for the weird and wicked weather it seems we’ve all been experiencing) and “Tennessee Jed.”
The second set opened with the “new” song I most wanted to hear: George Harrison’s “Any Road” (from his excellent final album, Brainwashed), sung by John. It has the joyful bounce of a “Scarlet” or “Bertha” and sharp lyrics that, in a Robert Hunterish sort of way, cut both ways as either a positive or cautionary message: “Oh, Lord, we pay the price / With the spin of a wheel, with the roll of the dice / Ah, yeah, you pay your fare / And if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.” A great choice for this band (and these fans)! The “Playing in the Band” was long and circuitous, with many strange paths taken, before eventually resolving back at the “reprise”—always a satisfying denouement to a twisted journey.
From there, though, the set really took off, with a crisp and assertive “China Cat,” a quite spectacular sing-along “St. Stephen” (which also contained a long, serpentine jam that departed far from its parent tune), and then a tremendously uplifting “Scarlet” > “Fire.” That pairing has not been as automatic with this band as it was with the Grateful Dead, but I must admit it felt somehow right to hear them together, and performed with such brio, on this night. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” was, amazingly, the first real ballad of the evening, and Bob sang it with tremendous emotion, matched by the soloing of JK and Jeff C. From there, the band rolled into “The Eleven” and then a sparkling “Goin’ Down the Road” which had a very cool ending—after the band played the traditional instrumental “We Bid You Goodnight” theme that usually marks the transition to another tune, they actually went into the a capella vocal version of that song to end the set; very nice (as Borat might say)! The “Attics of My Life” was icing on the cake— the crowd was connected so fully to that song, between verses you could’ve heard a pin drop in the place. And that’s always a beautiful thing. I’m not sure backing singers Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Becker get all the credit they should for filling out the group’s vocals so beautifully, and for their cheery and enthusiastic stage demeanor. They really add a lot to this band.
The pre-show scene the next night—New Year’s Eve—seemed surprisingly relaxed and mellow. People found their spots on the floor or the balcony and then just chilled for the most part; a far cry from the craziness of most GD New Year’s Eve shows. More amazing is that it pretty much stayed that way all evening. From my perch in the front row of the loge (JK side), it appeared that the floor never became ridiculously over-crowded and folks could always find plenty of room to dance near the back and on the sides. Is it possible this is one New Year’s show that was not oversold? Bill Graham would not have approved! (We kid Bill because we love him… honest! I can’t tell you how much I miss his presence in the Bay Area scene.)
I wondered if the fact that the show was set to be broadcast nationally on the Sirius Satellite Radio Grateful Dead channel would put a little more pressure on the band. As we’ve seen in the past, that can definitely cut both ways (sometimes the band would try a little too hard for a national audience and the music wouldn’t be as free and easy), but the sad fact is the simulcast was a total washout. Apparently, parts of the opening “Alligator” and then a little bit of the following “Big Bad Blues” made it out into people’s homes, but then the show conked out completely for the rest of the night—because, I gather, of problems with AT&T’s system of phone lines, which were bedeviled with power outages in California and elsewhere. Whatever the case, it was a big bummer and it no doubt spoiled many a spirited listening party coast to coast. I know I would’ve been crushed by that development. (Tell us what you did instead, Dead Heads!) The good news is that Sirius is re-broadcasting the Furthur New year's Eve show on Saturday, January 8, and noon ET, then again on Sunday (1/9) at 9 p.m., Tuesday (1/11) at noon, Thursday (1/13) at 3 a.m. and Saturday (1/15) at 9 p.m. (all times Eastern). They're offering one of their free 30-day trials, too, so anyone can hear it: Go to www.sirius.com/deadfreepass for more info.
I found the first set of New Year’s to be a sort of hill and dale affair (to quote the late, great Spalding Gray). I am, frankly, not a fan of this band’s “Alligator”—John K. doesn’t have the Pigpen grit to sell it vocally, and though the jams occasionally go to some exciting places, this one didn’t for the most part. Bob’s new “Big Bad Blues” moved along at a nice clip—it’s another one of his tunes with lots of different sections and slightly odd transitions, but I dug it and it got the crowd going in spots. I sort of felt the band was struggling a bit during the early part of the set. The sound should’ve been perfect where I was, but it felt unbalanced at times—I’ve been going to these things long enough to know that’s usually the band being tentative, not the fault of the sound folks. Staying in the blues mode, they next took off with the locomotive beat of “Caution,” and though this one really exploded after each mention of “mojo hand,” the verses, such as they are, were muttered in a sort of low-key monotone by Bob—I’ve heard him spit out the tale of the Gypsy Woman with so much more urgency and emotion. Still, it’s always a treat to hear that chestnut and it once again brought back fond recollections of the departed Pigpen. “Wharf Rat” was nicely delivered by JK & Co. but felt out of place in the set to me. (I don’t think it’s just years of hearing it late in the show that’s conditioned me.) Then, out of nowhere, came a short but blazing “Sitting on Top of the World,” also sung by John, and for me this is where the set turned in a solidly positive direction. “High on a Mountain” followed—with its soaring harmonies that remind me of the Jefferson Airplane, and its surging, melodic instrumental passages—and then, to finish the set on a strong note, another great “Cumberland Blues” (which I thought I heard coming earlier, pre-“Caution” perhaps). This band really tears it up with that tune!
Set Two started with a rather easy-going “Cassidy,” nicely sung by Bob (though I’d love to see him do it as a duet with Sunshine). The jam seemed to take forever to get going, building very slowly, but eventually it did hit a rich vein, and the back half of the jam was potent indeed. Next came the other new Phil-sung “Mountain” song—in fact, it’s called “The Mountain Song” and the chorus progression was co-written by Garcia and the Airplane’s Paul Kantner back in 1971 during the famous “Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra” sessions that resulted in David Crosby’s first album at Wally Heider’s studio in SF that year. Phil Lesh’s musician son Brian later found some Robert Hunter lyrics designed for that song and Brian wrote some new progressions for the verses, and also performed a different version with his own band, Blue Light River. Furthur has been playing it since the summer and it’s developed nicely. It also proved to be a perfect lead-in to an uplifting “I Know You Rider,” which had everyone in the Civic singing along, as you can imagine.
A nearly stand-alone “Other One” had its hot moments, but never really broke completely free of its moorings, and then lurched clumsily into “Let It Grow”… but, man, here’s where this set really went into the next dimension for me! “Let It Grow” was so fiery and imaginative, with a long and varied jam at its heart, and all the tentativeness that I was hearing in “Cassidy” and “The Other One” seemed to melt away, and from that point on—and for the rest of the night—I thought the band was on fire! I know there are some who feel that “Stella Blue” is somehow untouchable—it is the quintessential Jerry ballad—but I’ve really enjoyed the couple of versions I’ve seen John sing. I think he delivers it with conviction and he certainly plays the hell out of it—his closing jams on the song are so moving and well-constructed. This was a powerful reading, and it set up a striking contrast with the tune that erupted right after the graceful conclusion of “Stella”—“Viola Lee Blues,” all boppin’ and snarling and drenched in that raw late ’60s feeling that this band manages to convey so well. This might have been the first version I’ve personally seen that was not broken up by other songs between the verses, and I liked hearing it “whole” for a change. The jam before the final verse was developed spectacularly—noisy and aggressive and relentless, as it should be. I thought that might be the set ender, but instead they charged into “The Golden Road” to the delight of the madly dancing throng. Wow! One hour and seven minutes till midnight!
True… but… what the?... Right at 11:30, the lights went down and the P.A. started blasting circus music. From under a curtain to the right of the stage (that’s stage left for you thespians) came the first of three floats, following a previously cleared path across the floor to the center of the arena. It gets a little packed down there when a giant swath is carved into a crowd, but what’s a little crush between friends, right? Hey, it’s a Grateful Dead tradition! Leading the circus parade was a giant golden circus elephant on its hind legs, covered head to foot with little mirrors that reflected the lights in a million different directions, like an oversized mirror ball. Coolsville! Next came what looked like a circus train car with a flying eyeball theme, and then finally one with an enormous red dancing bear holding a rose. All sorts of folks were part of the parade, too, and threw things into the crowd and generally made merry, as the loud prerecorded circus music, with its blaring horns and crashing cymbals and drums continued without relief. (Trippier music might have served the parade a bit better.) Then the parade slowly made its way back under the magic curtain, and we all looked at each other with puzzled expressions because it was still only 11:45! Nevertheless, our attention was next commanded by a large circus cannon that was perched on the lip on the stage. The P.A. started blasting the obscure (but fantastic!) Rolling Stones song “We Love You” (a fave of mine; it was the B-side of the summer 1967 single “Dandelion,” which I owned)…. “Weeeeeeeee…. lovvve you!” the Stones sang in their patented psychedelic-era harmonies, “and we hope that you will love ‘we’ too!” Yeah! An inspired choice! As various girls of all ages clad in colorful circus and other apparel danced onstage, the cannon went off and a tsunami of confetti exploded into the audience in front of the stage. Bill Walton, decked out in Father Time/circus regalia, glided through the mayhem, and then 10 people holding large white cards appeared at the edge of the stage. The countdown began… “10… 9… 8…” each number prompting a card to be turned over revealing that number… and then it was “HAPPY NEW YEAR!!” and the balloon drop, everyone going crazy, delirious, and then the band kicked into their own version of “We Love You”! Now that takes chutzpah—to follow the Stones magnificent recording with your own take. But they totally pulled it off! It sounded fantastic from where I was dancing, the voices rising with the same sort of hypnotic power as the Stones’.
There’s just one thing—the “midnight” moment was actually ten minutes before midnight, which was, I’ve gotta say, kind of disorienting. Of course, there’s a long and noble tradition of “midnight” being whenever Bill Graham said it was, so this wasn’t exactly unprecedented, but I felt like we were kind of denied the slow, methodical, things-are-getting-crazier-every-second build-up to midnight I’m used to at these shows. At any rate, it was still a VERY high and happy moment and how’s this for poetic justice: Right after the band concluded “We Love You,” they went right into the traditional “Sugar Magnolia” and four minutes into that song was when the real midnight occurred! Dancing to “Sugar Mag” as balloons continued to fly around the hall… every man, woman and child seemingly with huge grins plastered on their pusses… it doesn’t get any better than that! Definitely a highlight of my year and, hopefully, a harbinger of a better year ahead!
Rather than splitting off the “Sunshine Daydream” and saving it for later, Furthur played the full “Sugar Mag,” then kept the warm glow in the hall going with excellent versions of “The Wheel” and “Uncle John’s Band.” “Unbroken Chain” was, as usual, a showcase for some intense, focused jamming led by John and Jeff, and all year I’ve enjoyed the song’s new coda, which to me feels a bit like the end of “Layla,” the way it builds and soars. Then it was on to the full “Terrapin Station” suite, which I think is certainly a candidate for Song of the Year from this band. I’ve heard every version they played, and they’ve all been outstanding, as this one was. The jam after “his job is to shed light, not to master” was developed beautifully, the group in “search” mode, deftly exploring some of the landscape of “Terrapin.” Then, from the majestic “At a Siding” entrance through “Terrapin Flyer” (which is totally propelled by Joe Russo’s dynamic skins work) to the final reprise is always such a wonderland of different musical tempos and feelings—it slays me every time.
I could have gone home fully satiated after that batch of songs, but the band had more up their collective sleeves: like a killer “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower” (the “Slipknot!” was especially gnarly and interesting), and finally, to close the third set, a solid and fun “Truckin’” (which I thought I’d heard in the tune-up before the first set). “Saturday Night” was a surprise to me (though I guess it was at least Saturday morning when they played it), but I appreciated going out with a full-on rocker instead of a ballad, and danced my ass off one mo’ time. Hey it’s New Year’s Eve! We have the whole rest of the weekend to sleep it off!
Furthur has been proving itself night after night all year long—new songs, fascinating rearrangements of old ones, intriguing cover tunes… This is a vital band that feels like it's just hitting its stride. It’s been a joy to witness, so here’s a champagne toast to lots more Furthur Fun in 2011. Thanks, guys!
Note: You can find a fantastic selection of great photos of the NYE shows and festivities taken by ace shutterbug Jay Blakesberg at www.furthur.net . And for another view, check out John Margaretten's astonishing gallery of pics from the shows on jambase.com: http://www.jambase.com/Articles/25545/Furthur-NYE-Run-San-Francisco-Pics
Your review is a pleasure to read, Blair! I was there the 30th but opted for something lower key on the 31st. I concur with what you say about the first night so I read your review of the next night with complete faith in its perspective. Happy new year to you and yours!
Thanks for the review blair. It sounds like it was a great time. Was not their but have listened to the shows and they are awesome. I was glad to see Welcome to The Dance come back as I dont think it was played since the new years run last year. I like the new tunes, Big Bad Blues being my favorite. (Tell us what you did instead, Dead Heads!) It was a bummer that the broadcast didn't make it. We tuned in just after it started(after tuning into phish webcast) and once it was determined that it would not play we put on last years Furthur New Years show and danced to that instead. Serius was playing GD 13.31.78 but for whatever reason we were ready for Furthur. Happy New Year
I was thinking about that Calaveras "Sunrise" the other day--definitely one of the cooler things from the past year, and I like your idea of letting Sunshine give it a shot...
and i agree with you blair, i think on all points. i saw the first "full" terrapin, in calaveras county and saw the one in golden gate park and the thunderous one on fri night and have listened to all of them and i agree that it is a good furthur tune of the year choice. who would have thought we would ever see that crap the whole record .... ??! seeing jeff c man the analog synth that is situated above his rhodes by the back of his rig during the part of terrapin we never saw in GD times was very exciting. his timing with that sh&^&T has to be spot on and it is. one thing though calaveras is still the ONLY sunrise, sung gorgeously by teresa williams .... i don't know why they don't let sunshine have at that one she would deliver on that tune and sunshine singing sunrise sounds kinda cool .... maybe they'll turn that one loose in the spring ...
ColdRainAndSnow from the first night was the barn burner of them all john k i lOVe you soooo much thank you for doing what you do and being who you are i love you you are not "the jerry guy" you are you, and i, and WE LOVE YOU - and yes jeff (pehrson) and sunshine are definitely part of what makes this band what it is. they are simply fantastic and so joyous and jubilant all the time it warms the heart ... the rain and snoooooowwwww oo oooohhhh oh oh ooh oh oh ohhh oh's were OFF THE HOOK jeff p and sunshine and johnny and bobby and phil harmonically converging every time ... wowie. !!
so much fantastic furthur these two nights phil is a machine and a genius and bobby - we love you bobby. joe russo is from another planet i swear he has four arms and three feet and jeff c is phenomenal. i shudder as i say this but it is becoming apparent that he ... rivals ... brent .. in ....the ... slot ! face it this is it. even without billy in the band. this.is.the.real.deal.