When Jerry Garcia died in 1995 most people thought it was the end for the Grateful Dead, but all these years later, it appears as if only the name has been put to rest.
The surviving members have carried on the band’s rich musical legacy in their own ways and recently, bassist Phil Lesh and guitarist Bob Weir have joined forces to inject new life into the legendary material with their current project, Furthur. Conceived of as a project that aimed to re-create the energy of the early days of the band, Furthur has done that and much more. They are selling out shows all over the country and even writing new music; in many ways, it’s a rebirth of sorts for the Grateful Dead.
It has been well documented that Lesh and Weir have had their ups and downs over the 15 years since Garcia passed away, but it looks like they have finally patched things up and realized that their relationship is more important than whatever may come between them. “When we went out on tour with The Dead in 2009 the feeling that I brought away from it was how much I had missed and enjoyed playing with Bob, and he indicated to me that he felt the same way,” Lesh told Listen Up Denver! during a recent interview. “I will also say that it was he and I who put that tour together, so that we could play together again. After the tour it was ‘suspicions confirmed! Yes, this is a relationship that we can’t allow to widen anymore.’ Once we agreed on that, the rest was history.”
Though the idea for Furthur was born while on tour as The Dead, Lesh admits that he and Weir did not talk to The Dead’s drumming duo of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann about joining the band. “We did not talk to them about it because it was between me and Bob,” he said. “Once we agreed that we wanted to make a band, we knew that we wanted to keep moving forward and the way to do that is to bring in younger musicians.”
This practice is one that Lesh has adhered to since the late ’90s when he formed the first of his storied Phil and Friends ensembles. “In Phil Lesh and Friends I played with a lot of musicians who weren’t that familiar with Grateful Dead music, but by the time they had spent a year in my band they were saying things like, ‘God I never knew you guys had so many great songs! How did this get by me for all these years?’ It’s not only gratifying but it’s extremely exciting because I was able to get first-class musicians with a fresh viewpoint. That’s the key to keeping the music alive, rather than having it turn into a museum piece,” said Lesh.
In assembling this band, Lesh and Weir plucked some of the best and brightest in the business to play alongside them. While Ratdog drummer Jay Lane left Furthur in early 2010 to rejoin Primus, the other charter members of the band remain. Another of Weir‘s longtime bandmates in Ratdog, Jeff Chimenti, handles keyboard duties, while the lead guitar and drumming roles are filled by two relatively new faces.
The first and youngest member of the band, drummer Joe Russo, has fit into the group like a seasoned veteran. He first crossed paths with Lesh during a summer tour co-bill when he was playing as part of GRAB, a quartet that featured his bandmate Marco Benevento, and Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish. “I was just really impressed with Joe’s range and his ability to play different kinds of grooves and mix it up within those grooves,” Lesh said about his early meetings with Russo. “It was impressive enough that we invited Joe to come out and play with us and it clicked right away.” He then went on to talk about how much their relationship has evolved since that first jam session. “I love playing with him. It’s a kick in the butt and a ‘hoot,’ as Jerry used to say, pretty much all the time. It’s really easy to just relax into what Joe is doing and he responds to me as well, which is very cool. Sometimes I don’t even have to look at him, I’ll just change what I’m playing and he’ll pick it up,” said Lesh.
It’s that kind of mind meld that fans of Grateful Dead music have been responding to enthusiastically as Furthur continues to mature as a band. After more than 80 shows last year, and a similar number on the agenda for 2011, Lesh is confident that five-way musical conversation that the group has worked so hard to develop will only get better.
The other thing that has been pulling Deadheads to the shows in droves is the man who was tapped to fill Garcia’s shoes, John Kadlecik. In 1997, Kadlecik co-founded Dark Star Orchestra, a group dedicated to recreating Grateful Dead shows in their entirety, and quickly became known for how much he sounded like Garcia, not only on guitar, but also on vocals. After hearing about the band for years, Lesh began listening to recordings and was struck by some undeniable resemblances to his late friend and bandmate. “It’s uncanny the extent to which he can channel Jerry,” Lesh said. “We wanted to re-create the vibe of the late ’60s and early ’70s when we were starting out and the energy that John brings is unique in so many ways. He channels Jerry at times but he also brings a very finely focused sensibility of his own to the music. In a way, for me, that is like combining the Grateful Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends, because when he cuts loose it’s like nothing that anybody has ever done and I really like that aspect of it. The experience of playing with him is wonderfully unique and very moving. I get chills down my spine sometimes. I can’t really describe it in too much detail because I’d like to keep a little mysticism surrounding the whole thing.”
One thing that Lesh does like to describe in detail is the songwriting for Furthur that he has been doing with his son Brian. The two have written three songs together so far and in Lesh’s words “he and I are evolving into a pretty neat collaboration.”
“The first one that we worked on was ‘High on a Mountain,’ which is an old Ola Belle Reid song from the ’40s or ’50s and it sounded like a traditional song so I commandeered it and arranged it for the band. When we needed some more lyrics, I asked Brian to add a couple of verses around a theme that I gave him. He took that and totally transformed the song into a brotherly love song,” said Lesh, sounding more like a proud father than a musician.
The second song the two worked on started with a foundation of a David Crosby song from 1970. Brian explained the songwriting process in some detail on Furthur’s website, beginning with how he used Crosby’s work to inspire a version of the song for his own band, Blue Light River. “Using David Crosby’s refrain as a chorus, I wrote three verses and just like that, another incarnation of the song was born. After hearing Blue Light River’s song, my mom, Jill, did some research and found lyrics written by Robert Hunter that were meant to be added to David’s original composition. Seeing the potential, she brought them to my dad and me, and together we came up with a third incarnation of the song. Using David’s chorus, my arrangement and music for the verses and Hunter’s lyrics, we built a new song that pays homage to and builds upon my song, which in turn was built upon the original,” wrote Brian Lesh.
In addition to the work being done by the Lesh family, Weir has been working hard on some of his own contributions and drawing heavily on lyrics written by Hunter. Probably the strongest of these songs is “Big Bad Blues” which Furthur debuted in September at Red Rocks and features a vocal and percussion breakdown that is reminiscent of “Throwing Stones” from the Dead’s 1987 album In The Dark.
It is refreshing that more than 45 years after the Grateful Dead were formed in San Francisco, the music is still very much alive and evolving in some of the most creative and positive ways that it has in decades. Somewhere, Garcia is smiling down on his former bandmates and who knows, maybe those chills that Lesh feels when Kadlecik channels his old friend are more than just chills.
Furthur @ 1st Bank Center – February 11, 12 and 13