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Furthur Festival, Mountain Aire, CA – 5/27-30

All photos by Alan Sheckter- click here for additional images

“Nobody told us where to park. Nobody Searched our car. We just pulled in, set up camp, and started partying. Life is good”

A common thought shared as heads from all over the place settled in to the Furthur Festival on Friday night. And while it didn’t seem quite as crazy as the stories coming from those lucky enough to have caught the Grateful Dead at these same the Calaveras County Fairgrounds playing with Carlos Santana in 1987, the Furthur Festival was indeed a three day family gathering of blissed-out deadheads basking in the continued interpretation of this timely music.

Sure there were some kids who stayed up late, partied excessively, and got a little too loose, but isn’t there always a few who fall into the category of having too much too fast? Whether your drug of choice is dancing or psychedelics, it all comes down to the music. Thankfully, for the most part, it seemed people took care of one another, and the vibrant scene only accentuated a brilliant and unique musical experience.

After arriving at the festival and scratching my head like most others at the discombobulated landscape, I figured out where to pick up our bracelets and found spot to camp. Settling in, we had plenty of time to get to know our new neighbors as the “Sound Check” didn’t kick off till about 9pm.

“Sound Check” needs to be in quotes here because as many of us had hoped and speculated, the “Sound Check” was really a full on 2+ hour set that showcased, arguably, some off the tightest playing Furthur has yet to share. Having taken in their initial Fox Theater shows last September, the New Years run and Phil’s Birthday, I’ve seen a fair amount of the band as they’re gotten to know each other. Clearly, they’re becoming more familiar with each other as musicians, and even more unmistakably, they’re having a ton of fun.

Friday’s monster set started off with a loose jam that bled in a surprise “Eleven” opener. Bobby took the vocals for this one as the band kept jamming and went right into a marvelously played “Eyes of the World.” Phil Lesh took the vocals on this Dead treasure as the “Open-Air Sound Check” quickly started feeling like an open-air jam. “Eyes” was tight, and as the boys drifted off into their next segue, Phil started dropping bombs as the band pulled back and started playing spacey distant notes, finally bringing it back together and letting loose on a sublime “Dark Star”. Three songs in and the crowd and band were already in sync. It felt like a second set and with a completely transcendent light show to match. “Dark Star” was sung by Phil, Bob Weir, and John Kadelecik before Phil took the duties on “Bird Song” and Bobby on “Loose Lucy.”

The whole set had been played through at this point and the stoke factor was high. After “Loose Lucy,” it looked like Furthur was going to take a breath, but then John goes and brings the Fairgrounds into “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Note-for-note John owned the old Traffic tune, a late 80’s classic Dead cover. From here a huge “Scarlet>Fire” followed in late 70’s funky style as most of us figured the epic “Sound Check” was about to be done. Had it been the last notes of the night Friday would have still been a success from the standpoint of great song selection, executed brilliantly, a noticeably tighter lightshow, a happy band, and really happy crowd.

But it turned out we had a few more to go before the late night festivities got under way. The train kept running and Bobby led us all into a raging version of “Let it Grow” before Phil took the reins for his classic “Unbroken Chain.” “It keeps getting better” a guy dancing next to me proclaimed mouth and eyes wide and smiling. “Standing on the Moon” was up next, coincidentally right as the nearly full moon rose? I’m not sure but it was a pretty cool occurrence to behold with the lush rolling Sierra foothills, a stage with a great band framed by a huge steal-your –face, and thousands of rocking fans as the backdrop. “Playing in the Band” was the last full tune of the “Sound Check,” which became a joke for the rest of the evening…”yeah, great Sound Check, ha, ha”. But another verse of “Dark Star” was actually the last thing played. The first verse was repeated to be exact, before the band abruptly cut it off nodding that the “Sound Check” was officially over. For the record, anytime these guys ever do a public “Sound Check” again, it is well worth checking out.

After the set people seemed to forget about the “All-Star Jam” scheduled for late night. I forgot. I left the Furthur set so stoked I just forgot. Forgot until I was walking through the main venue as a shortcut to a friend’s campsite, and I heard some notes being plucked in the late-night concert hall. I detoured over to take a look, and found barely a hundred people in front of a stage housing Joe Russo, Jeff Chimenti, Jackie Greene, Larry Campbell, and Phil. “Uh, late night Phil and Friends!?!”

Low and behold, a mini Phil and Friends reunion (Phil, Jackie, Larry) was about to take place a no one was there. Minutes later I saw Phil bobbing up and down as I recognized he first distorted note of “Viola Lee Blues.” The ensemble jammed on through the first verse before Jackie Greene led the band through a spirited “New Speedway Boogie.” And just like that the place was packed and everyone was belting out the line “Spent a little time on the mountain…” Teresa Williams then hopped on stage as Larry switched to fiddle, an instrument he would own throughout the weekend on just about every open stage.”Peggy-O” lent itself to Teresa’s amazing voice as both Larry and Teresa also stayed on stage for “Tennessee Jed.”

A quick break saw Phil leave the stage and Jackie pick up the bass. Then Bobby came out with Mark Karan on guitar as the new configuration of musicians started into the second verse or “Viola Lee Blues.” Next was a lively “Sugaree” before the another exchange of musicians brought out Jack Cassady and Jorma Kaukonen. The Haight-Ashbury legends played on “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “I Know You Rider before the final verse of “Viola Lee Blues” ended the “All Star Jam.”

What a great night of music. It was only day one of the festivities and the festival was already taking it Furthur.

Jackie Greene – photo by Alan Scheckter

Saturday

A Sunshine Day Dream. A gorgeous California day that was greeted at the crack of noon by some top notch strumming over on the “Dark Hollow” acoustic stage. Mark Karan started the charge but he wasn’t the only one to let some sweet notes into the crowd this fine day. Actually, the acoustic stage was a sure fire hit all weekend. Just about everyone at the festival took the stage at one point or another, making for some outstanding collaborations and jams. Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell organized the proceedings on this stage that saw anything from traditional bluegrass tunes to Jerry Garcia solo material throughout the weekend. Over on the “Sunshine Stage” Phil son’s band, Blue Light River led things off before Common Rotation and Dan Bern took the stage, followed by past Weir collaborators The Waybacks who closed things out.

Over on the Furthur stage, Jemiah Puddleduck was fun, and showcased some of the under-celebrated talents of shredder Mark Karan. Karan also came out during Jackie Green’s set, which included some of his more popular tunes and some nasty guitar licks.

All of this and still three sets of Furthur to be had.

The band’s plan went off without a hitch, as the triad of American Beauty, Workingman’s Dead, and Anthem of the Sun were played magnificently. The night sort or felt like a greatest hits soiree until the boys let loose during Anthem. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams continued to add to the Furthur ensemble as he played no less than four different instruments throughout many classic American Beauty songs, as well as on Workingman’s Dead. Teresa lent her beautiful vocals to “Till the Morning Comes” and “Attics of my Life.”

Anthem was undoubtedly the most complex endeavor of the evening, but Furthur rose to the challenge of this psychedelic treat. The “That’s It for the Other One>Cryptical Envelopment>Quadlibet for Tenderfeet>The Faster We Go the Rounder We Get>We Leave the Castle” was a rare selection to witness live and was well received. “New Potato Caboose” and “Born Cross Eyed” were also executed with solid improvisation. When Bobby was asked at the Q and A earlier in the afternoon about his feelings on playing the old Pig Pen staple “Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)” Weir simply shared he tries channeling Pig Pen and attempts to improvise like only he could. He spoke of his enjoyment for continuing to play the tune, and it was offered as the last song of three sets of fabulous Grateful Dead the crowd of roughly 10,000 was lucky enough to witness on Saturday night.

For the encore, Phil reminded us of his organ donor Cody, and the importance of registering to be a donor. Then, the first of the two song encore started with the debut of a newly written Robert Hunter tune called “Muli Guli.” Give it a listen. It could’ve been the good energy of the three sets I had just witnessed, but several friends and I all agreed the song was fun, smooth, and had a worthy beat. Then for the final song before Galactic dove off into their multi-hour sweat fest of New Orleans funk, Bobby lead the crowd on a sing along jam of “One More Saturday Night.”

Alan Sheckter and Further, the bus

Sunday

Sunday offered plenty more music on the heels of two fine days. The Dark Hollow stage continued its focus on multi-artist collaborations and amazing acoustic music for nearly six solid hours. The Sunshine Stage showcased great sets from honeymoon, Carney and Maiden Lane, while The Furthur stage got everyone geared for another Dead marathon with a rocking set from The Mother Hips, and a celebrated set of electric Hot Tuna.

There was also another Q and A held in the Terrapin Pavilion earlier in the afternoon. All weekend artifacts from the Grateful Dead’s career adorned the interior walls. There were rare photographs, instruments, and framed records from the Dead’s illustrious history. At the front of the room was a backdrop from when the Dead performed here in 1987. This is where Phil and Rock Scully spoke Saturday, and where Scully was joined by Bob Weir and Bill Walton on Sunday. A rare treat both days to hear some candid conversations from Phil and Bob, and also get a few funny stories from Scully and Walton. Oh to have been on that strange trip to Egypt…

By the time Furthur took the stage everyone seemed to have settled in thoroughly. At this point we were all expected to hear the first plucks of a guitar signaling “St. Stephen.” However, what we got was a brief, jazzy jam, that all of sudden burst into “Help on the Way.” We all knew it was going to be played, but it came as a sort of surprise to many and got the crowd dancing right away. The “Slipknot“ and “Franklins’ Tower” were solid, and “King Solomon’s Marbles” just blew it up. “Music Never Stopped” and “Crazy Fingers” were also definite delights. Then the rarities came out with the short and sweet blend that’s “Sage and Spirit” and the abnormal composition of “Blues for Allah>Sand Castles and Glass Camels>Unusual Occurrences in the Desert.” I love Scully’s story about “Sage and Spirit” from his book Living with the Dead, “Bobby wrote ‘Sage & Spirit’ while my daughters, named Sage and Spirit, were jumping on his bed and generally trashing his hotel room. He was trying to play his guitar and came up with the rhythm for this from their jumping. The flute mimics their laughter.” (p. 257.)

A good majority of attendees, even the most diehard, hadn’t seen these two song live. Five times in 1975 “Blues for Allah>Sand Castles and Glass Camels>Unusual Occurences in the Desert” was played with only two ever live plays for “Sage and Spirit.” Rare treats were a fun part to hearing these albums, and it made up for the backwards approach of actually telling us they were going to play albums, never mind which ones. The unknown and journey each show lends itself to are part of Dead core values. The adventure, improvisation and spontaneity all are parts of the magic. I heard many people initially bummed that they knew what they were going to hear, but as it played out most of us couldn’t be happier.

Aoxomoxoa was up next and it too was played quite well. From “St. Stephen” to the surprise jam in “Mountain of the Moon”, and rare treats like “Doing the Rag”, and Phil singing “Rosemary” this album was a great fit for the second set. Once again Teresa Williams slayed the vocals, this time on the uber trippy “What’s Become of the Baby.”
And then we had arrived at the last set of the weekend, and without taking anything away from these past three moving days, Furthur clearly saved the best for last. Their take on the five first songs of Terrapin Station were masterful. We went from some amazing PA set break tunes (all weekend) right into Bobby letting loose on “Estimated Prophet,” a 70’s groove version of “Dancin’ in the Streets,” a soaring “Passenger,” a fitting Sunday rendition of “Samson and Delilah” and then Teresa Williams, yet again, sharing her gifted voice on “Sunrise.” Really, it’s a worthy one to listen to again. She hit ever note, right on tone, and really continued the trajectory of an amazing set to cap the weekend with another song most festival goers had never seen live. And then there was the “Terrapin Suite.” The extra parts to “Terrapin” have been called “the Alhambra” by tapers in the past, and the Grateful Dead only performed this masterpiece once, on March 18, 1977.

The whole weekend was encapsulated here as Furthur played the whole “Terrapin,” note for note, the lights in sync. Everything came together as Joe Russo touched every note that, respectfully, was originally written for and partially by two amazing drummers. John sang beautifully, Bobby lent some solid vocals and strums. It was a joyous way to end three days of fabulous music.

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