In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have spent Friday afternoon listening to live Jerry Garcia-era Grateful Dead while tooling around Denver before going to see the first night of Furthur at Red Rocks. With my ears having bloated expectations, there was bound to be disappointment.
Further, anchored by surviving Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh on bass and Bob Weir on guitar, is, to some extent, a no-win situation. In the years since Garcia’s death, various members have carried on in different projects. Lesh put together Phil and Friends, which reached its apogee in 2002 with the guitar talents of Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes. Weir has chugged along in Ratdog, and every now and then, as in 2003, the surviving members get together and go on the road, sometimes reaching greatness.
The current touring band includes longtime Ratdog keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, drummer Joe Russo, backing vocalists Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson, and guitarist John Kadlecik, who co-founded the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra. Now, in the best tradition of the movie “Rock Star,” he’s filling the Jerry slot on stage.
Kadlecik is adept at Garcia stylings on the guitar, and at times when he stepped to the mic, his singing sounded very Garcia-like. For some, having someone like Kadlecik playing with Weir and Lesh is an “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” type of situation, and the only thing they want. For people like me, who would prefer a very non-Garcia guitarist to create something new, it’s more of a mixed bag.
Ironically however, the problem Friday night wasn’t really Kadlecik, whose single-coil guitar pickups sounded bright and punchy, but it was Weir and, to a lesser extent, the sound, which was very treble-y and could have benefitted from a stronger low end, even though Lesh’s brilliant bass playing shown forth.
Weir, who really needs to shave the Jerry-like beard, struggled all night. Weir sang some of the Garcia material, such as “West L.A. Fadeaway” in the first set, but botched some of his own songs. He biffed the words to the first verse of the show-opening “Truckin'” a song he’s been playing for 30 years, and struggled on the harmonies with Lesh on “Cosmic Charlie.”
After trying to give the band a four count that led to a stutter step on “Estimated Prophet” in the second set, he managed to sing the words right, but the whole song sounded like it was being played by people on Quaaludes dragging it a whole step or two slow, even during the happy solo section.
Despite the missteps, there were some bright spots that showed what could happen if Furthur starts firing on all cylinders. The version of “Casey Jones” that closed the first set had a maniacal pace that meshed well with the lyrics, and the combo of “Eyes of the World” and “Fire on the Mountain” brightened up what had been a lackluster second set. Chimenti and Kadlecik were both given free reign, and for a moment, Furthur breathed life.
Joshua Elioseff is a Boulder-based freelance photographer and regular Reverb contributor. Check out his website.