Furthur, MCU Park, Brooklyn, NY – 7/13
In 1964 , a bus named Furthur, loaded with Merry Pranksters, set out for the World’s Fair in Queens NY to celebrate the release of Ken Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. One wonders what would have happened if the bus veered slightly south and found itself in the freakishly wonderful peninsula of Coney Island. Almost 50 years later, despite attempts and gentrification and waves of new immigrants converting the surrounding area into a western version of Odessa, Coney Island remains a redoubt of freaks, all things strange and a wonderful window into New York’s colorful past. The boardwalk and streets are still full with hustlers and barkers, drawing the uninitiated into shows featuring bearded woman and sword swallowers. The wooden roller coaster Cyclone still clanks overhead as it has for over 80 years, terrorizing and thrilling riders with break neck turns and dizzying speeds. And, a short walk from the venue, Nathan still serves crisp hot dogs and fat, wonderfully greasy french fries to thousands of beach goers. If you squint your eyes a bit, one can see Kesey and crew setting up camp and bringing their alternative universe and house band, a young Grateful Dead, to this eclectic community on the Atlantic.
And so, Grateful Dead founders Bob Weir and Phil Lesh brought their band, named after that famed bus, to MCU Park in Coney Island. Carrying on the Grateful Dead tradition of improvisation music, the group continues to focus on the Dead’s vast songbook, bringing new arrangements, twists and tempos to the old standards. Never ones to rest easily on tried and true formulas, Lesh’s avant garde musical background, coupled with Weir’s folksy but unique approach to basic rock structure push the band into finding new pathways in every song. This set opened with old favorite “Hey Pocky Way” and included a warm cover of Dylan’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” The first set was crisp and efficient, the band establishing its footing, with Weir in full voice and Phil’s base darting around John Kadlecik’s guitar and anchoring the rhythm section. Backup singers Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson brought full voice and perfect harmonies to every song. Drummer Joe Russo somehow manages to provide the backbone previously provided by the two Grateful Dead drummers, suggesting the syncopated beats of the great jazz drummers. The set ended with a roaring version of Jack Straw, the stadium now full of delighted, twirling Dead heads.
The second set provided fireworks from both the stage and Coney Island boardwalk. Opening with a ripping “Scarlet” > “Fire,” the band settled into a second set pace, with Weir leading the band through “Weather Report Suite” into a punched up version of “Dark Star.” And here’s where the integration of Kadlecik, Chimenti and Russo really shows; the jam framework of “Dark Star” ratcheted up into a jazzy, beat driven exploration removed from earlier, meandering versions – familiar, but different. Flowing into Phil’s “Unbroken Chain,” the band tightly ran through the bridge, building up to the crescendos and falling back, quietly bleeding into the Rev. Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” with Weir again showing strong vocal form. A quick, harmony driven version of “Not Fade Away” led to a quick interlude and Phil’s donor wrap, followed by an encore of “Ripple,” sung by the entire stadium. Clocking in at close to four hours, this Furthur show showed how the band is gelling, taking those old gems and pushing them in new directions.