After nearly 50 years of wearing down muscles and tendons in the hands and arms playing the same songs again and again, things have evidently slowed down for the remaining members of the Grateful Dead playing in Furthur. And while you can't fault the band for making things a bit easier on everyone, a lot of energy is lost with the slow-down in tempo.
Take the opener, "One More Saturday Night": Even into the mid '90s, the song was a well-paced tune that got the feet moving. Last night's version was slinky and slow, and though the pacing makes it feel more like raunchy night downtown than a hopping house party, it bordered on sloppy-loose here and there with the not quite connecting in time with drummer Joe Russo.
"Sitting on top of the World," a bluegrass standard was given a funky clavinet, almost String Cheese Incident-like treatment by keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. Weir flubbed his way through a solo, saved halfway through by guitarist John Kadlecik's fingerpicked flatpicking-style solo and Chimenti's saloon-boogie piano.
The cover of Ryan Adam's "Peaceful Valley" was the highlight of the first set and the one song that, slowed down, didn't lose any of its passion and energy. Kadlecik's growling, gravelly voice isn't as agonized and desperate as Adams, but it gives the already Dead-esque tune a more reflective and aged feel. The structure of the song gave way to some fluttery, beautiful soloing by Kadlecik held down by Phil Lesh's equally as intricate bass playing.
Steve Winwood's "Gimmie Some Lovin'" lacked any umph or soul, even in Chimenti's take on the classic organ lines that Brent Mydland used to destroy in the 1980s. The band finally connected on all seven cylinders on the Chuck Berry classic, "Around and Around." Weir was finally connecting with the band both on the guitar and vocally by this point, and everyone seemed to relax and give each other room to solo and have fun.
Like the night before, the band played the last notes of first set and shuffled off the stage just a short hour after going on. Night two was more packed somehow than the sold-out night one, with the parking lots getting shut down well before 6 p.m. and people forced to park all the way down past the will-call booth.
Bathroom lines around the venue were all slightly longer during the break last night, too, as half of the visitors center in the rear of the venue was blocked off for a black tie wedding completely unrelated to the Furthur festivities. That might be fine during a half-empty show, but seemed like a complete oversight considering how packed the venue felt.
After a fifty-minute break, the band came back for a soupy, jammy second set that started off appropriately with Pink Floyd's "Eclipse," the closing anthem of The Wall. Lesh handled the vocals and rounded out the booming low end. "Mountains of the Moon" came next, a trippy and spacey tapestry that slowed down the night to a sing-along crawl. It was very well played, and Lesh's basslines were hypnotic, but going into such a mellow song right away didn't set the tone for the rest of the set.
In fact, the "St. Stephen" that followed was easily the highest energy of the night, putting the crowd finally into an arm-flailing frenzy that lasted until Lesh thumped out the opening bassline of yet another deep psychedelic number, "Dark Star," that stumbled along until the band went into "The Eleven." This is another version that suffers from the tempo shift problem. Not that the song isn't a feat of spiderlike guitar playing and uplifting melodies at any pace, but it loses some of its resounding joy when played at a speed that sounds more like a '77 tape stuck in a slow player.
The relatively newly-penned "Mountain Song" picked things up, and you can tell that Lesh and Kadlecik really enjoy the energy of this song and playing something new. In fact, if you think of bands from the '60s that are still around, few are putting out anything new. Let alone something that actually has some substance and quality to it with some resemblance to what the band's original sound was.
But then it was back to more of the same with a mellow "Playing in the Band" that went into a sleepy "Morning Dew." By the time "Playing" came back out of the jam, the side stairs were packed with people waiting for the last note to leave. With the closing notes of the "Uncle John's Band" encore echoing through the amphitheater, the bridge to the upper south lot was swarmed with baby boomers carrying their coolers and blankets back to their cars.
Again, it's not that these are bad versions of the songs by any stretch of the imagination. Lesh is as good if not better than he has ever been, Weir's voice hasn't changed, and the backing band of Chimenti, Russo and Kadlecik is a powerhouse of musicianship. There's still a lot of that nebulous Magic there that the Dead taps into. But in terms of seeing the songs live, dancing your ass off and getting that charge of energy the entire night - it just isn't what it used to be.
Page down for Critic's Notebook and Setlist.
Personal Bias: While I still have a profound love for this music, I'm clearly not the biggest fan of the subdued sound. Random Detail: Phil was wearing a white pearl-snap shirt from Colorado's own Rockmount Western Wear, complete with two rearing broncos on the chest. By the Way: Compared to their jamband counterparts, Furthur has easily the most boring light show. Changes were random and at best the few movable lights as exciting and predictable as watching a lawn sprinkler. Compared to the eye-candy feasts that former light designer Candace Brightman would bring to Grateful Dead shows and the halfway-decent lights of Phil and Friends shows for the past decade, the lack of anything more than the basic stage lights last night was a let down.
Furthur 10/01/11 Red Rocks Amphitheater Morrison, CO
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One More Saturday Night Sitting on Top of the World Mexicali Blues Peaceful Valley Stagger Lee Next Time You See Me Gimme Some Lovin' Around and Around
Jam Eclipse Mountains of the Moon St. Stephen Dark Star The Eleven Caution Mountain Song Playing in the Band Dark Star Morning Dew Playing in the Band (reprise)
ENCORE Uncle John's Band