Tuesday, April 17
Better than: String Cheese Incident.
In the ongoing tussle between Deadheads and straights, the straights seem to have won—definitely this battle, and possibly the War. A handful of vendors, selling pot paraphernalia and Steal Your Face blankets, lingered outside the Beacon Theater before the sixth show of a seven-night stand by Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s Furthur, as did plenty of sketchy-looking young’ns with dreadlocks and mangy dogs, ex-longhairs, current longhairs, and other signs that members of the Grateful Dead were in town. But inside the semi-recently reopened Beacon was a different story, the theater’s new crack security team herding Deadheads from the aisles, away from their friends, and into—harshest of mellows—their assigned seats. And the Deadheads mostly went. Pot smoke was almost entirely absent.
The majority of the crowd was on its feet from beginning to end, at least theoretically ready to boogie. But there were few noodle dancers and fewer spinners to spot, and not even many onely ex-fratboys unskinnily bopping. Thanks to a somewhat reasonable ticket price (most expensive orchestra seat: $69.50), the crowd was made up of far more than baby boomers, but—perhaps not surprisingly to many—far less than a Dead concert. Despite their seemingly silly circumstances—two original bandmembers, a fake-Jerry, and a pair of stunt-vocalist backup singers—Lesh and Weir have often been able to make magic for the still-significant amount of people who still care to be in a room with fellow Deadheads, hearing the band’s songbook recombined and sharing its subcultural meanings in real time by singing along and cheering in the right places, paying good money to do it multiple nights in a row, and all that. But circumstances may’ve changed again. (Though not the part about paying good money; all seven nights were quite sold out.)
During the show’s hour-long first half, the band focused on sluggish bar-band covers (Weir’s Bobby Womack-by-the-Stones’ “It’s All Over Now,” Fake-Jerry’s redundant “After Midnight”) and midtempo arrangements that seemed to harken to the band’s ’80s stadium plod instead of their leaner early-’70s incarnations (especially an unnecessarily groovy “Peggy-O”). But the lack of dancing and general good-time Deadhead chaos wasn’t necessarily the band’s fault. Near the end the set, Furthur played a pair of Dead tunes containing lyrics that Deadheads have traditionally gone berserker for, one mark of the super-fans’ ability to make the band’s repertoire into a three-dimensional collection by adding their own mass hashtags to songs. But during “Loose Lucy,” only a slight gurgle was heard from the room the first time the band came around to the “thank you for a real good time” refrain, and none at all when they returned to it. During the set-closing “The Music Never Stopped”—which contained the first of several pieces of breathtaking group improvisation—Bob Weir reached the line about the “band beyond description,” and not a peep was heard from the Heads.
Even with the lack of boisterousness on the other side of the unbreached fourth wall, a short jam in the “The Music Never Stopped” served as a quick reminder to why the band might be worth seeing: a time-warping free trio dialogue between Lesh’s darting lead bass, Fake Jerry’s quizzical Garcia-isms, and drummer Joe Russo’s light-handed cymbal-work. But it was over all too abruptly, Weir leading the band into some kind of vocal rave-up he seems to have affixed to the song in recent years. At the top of the second set, the band played Weir’s “Saint of Circumstance,” one of the few bright spots from the heroin/coke/booze years’ Go To Heaven, which contained a line that the crowd should have cheered for: “if this ain’t the real thing, then it’s close enough to pretend.” But they hadn’t earned it yet.
They finally found their mojo four songs in, during “Wharf Rat.” The crowd whooped when Fake-Jerry sang about “some other fucker’s crime” (but who wouldn’t?) and after the band made their way through Garcia and Robert Hunter’s magnificent rising structure, a few solos, the big coda, and a few minutes of jamming, they achieved weightlessness. Fake-Jerry (John Kadelcik, late of elaborate Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra) possesses an uncannily elaborate understanding of the Dead’s improv language and acted as a silver thread through Lesh’s bass melodies. Kadelcik and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti passed phrases back and forth, seemingly the dominant voices in the mix, but the jams seemed to sputter and lose shape whenever Weir adjusted his perennially shrill rhythm guitar tone. The brilliance came throughout the set in small pools: a deep zone in “Playing in the Band” that voiced itself into a liquid minor-key shuffle, a short and far-out jam in “Terrapin” where the Dead never had one before, the jams never extending too far beyond the five-minute mark.
The crowd did go nutso and sing along for good ol’ “Uncle John’s Band” (perhaps relieved the band wasn’t limboing through the calypso version they did for a few post-Jerry years) and Weir sang a Garcia ballad in his latter-day un-singalongable ’90s Dylan style (a heavily TelePrompted “Standing on the Moon”). But the real clue came in the encore. Covering Basement Takes outtake “Quinn the Eskimo”—presumably with thoughts of the ailing Levon Helm—the band got to the triumphant final line of the third verse, often intentionally misheard by Deadheads as “when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna dose.” At the Beacon, the line was seemingly not misheard at all.
There is vast nobility in representing the Grateful Dead, paragons of an entirely self-constructed musical reality, and the probably inevitable dimming of their extraordinarily special subculture is an even vaster disappointment. If it was just a Tuesday drop-off, one hopes Weir and Lesh might find new digs to play at next time they’re through town; the Beacon is now one more bummer palace unwelcoming to the remaining Deadheads and the cosmic portals they come seeking. But—lest the straight world claim any kind of broader victory—with west coast dates announced for the fall, as well as numerous gigs lined up at Phil Lesh’s new Terrapin Crossroads venue in San Rafael, California, and Bob Weir’s webcast-ready home studio, TRI, the music probably isn’t going to stop for a while yet. There were no drum circles outside the Beacon, just the hiss of nitrous tanks, and people looking for tickets for Wednesday’s show.
Critical bias: Halfway through six-year project to listen to (and tweet) every Dead show between 4/69 and 8/75.
Overheard: “I am not going to let you get arrested in there, man.”
Random notebook dump: Fake-Jerry singing one of Real-Jerry’s covers—obligatory hologram/Umberto Eco ref.
It’s All Over Now
Foolish Heart >
Money For Gasoline
The Music Never Stopped
Weather Report Suite (prelude) >
Weather Report Suite (part I) >
Saint of Circumstance >
Playing In The Band >
Terrapin Station Suite >
Uncle John’s Band >
Standing On The Moon
Quinn the Eskimo