Beyond and Before
Bob Weir & Ratdog - Mickey Hart - moe. - Black Crowes
New World Music Theatre - Tinley Park
July 19, 1997
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 1997 (The Furthur Issue), Volume 4, #9
Written by John Metzger
The second Furthur Festival tour passed through the New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, Illinois on July 19, bringing with it a slew of talented musicians. For a change, entrance to the arena was a breeze, as many chose to flock to the theater much later in the day, missing a number of outstanding performances. There wasn't a weak point in the 7-hour, 35-minute show, which continued without a break between the acts. Arlo Guthrie offered music and commentary throughout the day, providing a smooth transition from one group to the next.
The show began with up-and-coming jam band moe., and performing merely four songs in its 35-minute set, this young group blew the dimensions of musical structure apart at the seams. Even Mickey Hart was captivated enough to hang out by the side of thee stage, where he remained for most of the day, drumming along to the music on whatever he could find to hit.
From heavy bass lines to jazzy drumming to a twin-guitar attack, moe. cruised most frequently between a stylistic blend of the Allman Brothers and Phish and the pop-oriented musings of Dada. Yet, there is so much more to this band, and a 35-minute set is only enough to get a small taste of the musical pie.
Three minutes after moe. left the stage, Sherri Jackson was performing her 20-minute set, which hardly gave the audience a chance to catch its breath. She is a fine singer and outstanding musician. Not only did she play electric and acoustic guitar, but she also tore through a blistering fiddle solo on her opening number, at times plucking the strings like a guitar.
Another quick set change occurred, and Bruce Hornsby and his band were off and running. Over the past few years, Hornsby's visits to Chicago have not been his best. In fact, the last solid, Chicago performance from Hornsby was on November 12, 1993 at the Arie Crown Theater. At that show, Béla Fleck joined Hornsby for a three-hour epic blast of jazzy improvisation. This time around, Hornsby and his band were out to reverse that trend. His energy-level was amazingly high as he found it difficult to stay seated at his piano. Between solos, he was up and wandering about the stage, directing the musical traffic among band members.
Hornsby opened with a powerful Across the River that set the tone for his 65-minute set. Across the River was given a fully-developed treatment with many improvisational excursions, particularly from saxophonist Bobby Read and the band's new guitarist. There were many points when the song seemed to venture into the realm of The Other One, but each time the group pulled back, often at the last possible second. If there were any doubts after the opening number that Hornsby was not going to pull out all the stops, China Doll easily erased them. Again, the ensemble took an array of side-paths each of which was directed by Hornsby, who added plenty of piano fills himself. Hornsby even led China Doll into a brief exploration of Miles Davis's So What.
Stranger in a Strange Land was the only glimpse into Hornsby's current recording efforts and seemed as unfinished as the album. After an abrupt ending, Hornsby teased the beginning of Rainbow's Cadillac, then announced that he was going to try something he'd never done before. He picked up his accordion and led the band through a very different version of the song.
Perhaps the point of Hornsby's pacing all night was to search for the elusive Bob Weir. Hornsby spent the next several minutes making up a story about "Jack Straw" in an attempt to get Weir to show his face. Eventually Hornsby gave up and launched into a blistering and bluesy Valley Road. Towards the end of the song, Hornsby again wove in a few words about Jack Straw wandering down that valley road, but still Weir did not come out.
After concluding the song, Hornsby started to leave the stage but was waved back by the crew telling him he had more time. He decided to take requests from the crowd. After stating that he didn't have the balls to play one song (which one was it?), he decided to launch into a pairing of tunes by Bob Dylan — Quinn the Eskimo and It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. The former featured several hints at Lovelight, and the latter featured Debbie Henry and the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson on vocals.
Arlo Guthrie returned to the stage with a ukelele to perform a hysterical version of All Along the Watchtower. This was an abbreviated rendition as Jorma Kaukonen and Michael Falzarano quickly took over and launched into a splendid interpretation of I Know You Rider. This was followed by Kaukonen's best-known instrumental anthem Embryonic Journey. Both Kaukonen and Falzarano are outstanding guitarists and seeing them in a stripped-down, acoustic set was a special treat that allowed them to fully demonstrate their talent.
Ratdog turned in a pristine 65-minute set filled with an incredible intensity. The brilliant addition of saxophonist Dave Ellis was felt right from the start, as he swapped between tenor and baritone sax, often mid-song. Weir seemed to have a musical agenda that he was determined to achieve no matter what. From the first notes of Saint of Circumstance, the band was in synch. Dave Ellis quickly stepped to the forefront to deliver the first of many magnificent solos. The addition of Ellis gives Ratdog a sound reminiscent of the Grateful Dead's September '73 tour when Joe Ellis and Martin Fierro, who is now with Zero, lent a hand.
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Minglewood Blues, and Big Boss Man, which featured harpist Matthew Kelly on vocals, were all given the Ratdog treatment. Weir's unique rhythmic lead, paired with Ellis's lofty horn solos and Kelly's bursts of fanciful harmonica made these versions stand-out.
Masterpiece always has found its way into the Grateful Dead's Chicago performances, and so it was fitting that Ratdog also worked the song into its set. Weir delivered a slow, deliberate, and emotional rendition that recalled that final version at Soldier Field. It was hard not to imagine hearing Garcia's voice, particularly on the final "When I paint my masterpiece."
Eternity was also a highlight, and when its passionate blues-based ambience shifted into a jazzier space, it gave the song plenty of territory to explore. Midway through the tune, Chris Robinson appeared backstage and signaled Weir to keep an eye on the time. Weir nodded, but kept the exploratory jam going before moving into an Other One jam that gradually disintegrated, leaving only Rob Wasserman's space-y, bowed bass. This transformed itself into a Spoonful solo before the band returned for a brief space segment, a short Eternity jam, and a fiery Throwing Stones. By the end of the song, the crowd was driven into a dancing frenzy as Ratdog continued to jam this song so hard that it appeared as if the set was over. Consequently, One More Saturday Night was a pleasant surprise, and it, too, rocked with intensity and passion. With Weir screaming louder than he has in years, it was a fitting ending to a blistering set.
Needing a rest break, it was a welcome sight when Arlo Guthrie returned to the stage, guitar-in-hand, to perform a 20-minute set. Opening with a sweet rendition of Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, Guthrie proved that his voice hardly has diminished over the years. He even performed an updated version of Motorcycle (Significance of the Pickle) Song that had us laughing hysterically. He concluded on a more serious note with City of New Orleans and a beautiful new tune — Under Cover of Night.
Mickey Hart's Planet Drum quickly took the stage for an hour-long set of intensive drumming that compelled the audience to get up and dance. This talented group of percussionists includes Sikiru Adepoju, Zakir Hussain, and Giovanni Hidalgo on a wide array of rhythmic instruments. The group was joined by electric guitarist Jorma Kaukonen on four of the ten songs in its set. This included Hart's Fire on the Mountain which, like on the 1996 Furthur Festival, was performed in its original rap-like format, and Only the Strange Remain, a great, odd song that appeared on the Mystery Box album. Kaukonen's blistering leads added a stark contrast to his acoustic set earlier in the day and added to the power of Planet Drum's performance.
Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter quickly took the stage and kept the momentum moving with a 25-minute, three song set. Opening with Candyman, Hunter performed his own rhythm guitar that was recorded and fed back through the sound system during his solo breaks. In other words, he accompanied himself. Unfortunately, Hunter suffered some guitar tuning problems during the opening number, but quickly recovered to pull out an excellent version of Cruel White Water and a mind-blowing rendition of Reuben and Cherise. Hunter has been on tour for the past several months, and this has certainly helped his guitar playing immensely. This really came through on a lengthy Reuben and Cherise when Hunter took the song to new heights with an incredible solo.
As if this wasn't enough, Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman returned to the stage for a four-song, 35-minute acoustic excursion loaded with guests. The pair opened with Festival, but things really took off when Bruce Hornsby's horn section, Dave Ellis, Arlo Guthrie, Jorma Kaukonen, and Michael Falzarano joined them for a searing San Francisco Bay Blues that featured Jorma on vocals. As Bruce Hornsby, Sherri Jackson, and Al Schnier took the stage, the collective dove into a well-jammed Big River. As if that wasn't enough, another personnel change took place leaving Weir, Wasserman, and Hornsby, with Sikuru Adepoju and Dave Ellis, and a voyage through the beautiful strains of Bird Song commenced. Weir performed as a man possessed, leading the group into a soaring version, befitting of the song's legendary status. Hornsby's majestic keyboard playing complemented the piece nicely, as did Dave Ellis's melodic fills. It was an emotionally-driven rendition that further expanded upon Weir's agenda for the evening. "Don't you cry, anymore..."
The Black Crowes, playing the role of headliner for the festival, was up next, and the group turned in an hour-long set that fortunately featured several guest appearances. On the other hand, it also brought throngs of drunken, misguided fifteen-year-olds to the front, and although they were quickly tossed by security after they climbed countless seats to achieve a better view, they kept right on returning. Needless-to-say, it was quite distracting.
As the Black Crowes launched into the first few notes of Remedy, Bruce Hornsby made his way down to the front of the stage. Standing in front of the first row, he proceeded to wave his arms and wave to Chris Robinson, much like an adoring fan. Hornsby and Robinson had clearly hit it off and shared a wonderfully silly sense of humor.
From the opening Remedy to the closing Hard to Handle, most of the Black Crowes' songs were jammed-out, but yet seemed to lack the spirit and emotionally-moving essence of the rest of the day's music. Not that the band isn't enthusiastic about what it does. The group is full of technically exquisite musicians and watching Chris Robinson prance around the stage is certainly entertaining. There just wasn't a soul behind the songs. Indeed, it was the guests that broke up the monotony as one song ran into the next. Kaukonen lent a hand to Sloppy Drunk and Weir joined the band for Hard to Handle, but it was Dave Ellis who lifted the Black Crowes set, however briefly, into the nether regions. Ellis added some brilliant saxophone work to what could have been an otherwise drab Non-fiction, thankfully regaining the intensity and momentum that had been building all day.
The final 30 minutes of the concert were saved for the infamous Furthur jams that began as Weir and Ellis joined the Black Crowes' for a rousing version of Feelin' Alright. Numerous personnel changes took place as Sherri Jackson took over the vocals on a soulful trip through Chain of Fools. She has an incredible voice, and this song fit her style perfectly. Weir and Debbie Henry added backing vocals to the number.
Another quick personnel change led to the finale. The group, which included Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, Rob Wasserman, and Jay Lane, launched into a jam reminiscent of Maggie's Farm. Instead, Weir stepped up to the microphone and sang the lyrics to Got My Mojo Workin'. Though time was becoming rather precious, Weir dug in his heels and launched into a quick, but sweet Knockin' on Heaven's Door to wrap up the evening.
Reflecting upon the event, it's clear that Weir had an agenda: a message of healing, a message of love, and a message that the spirit still lives on. As he sang in the opening song of Ratdog's set: "If this ain't the real thing, it's close enough to pretend."
For those who skipped this year's festival, this was something special. All of the performances were outstanding, and although last year's concerts were amazing, this year was even better. This time out, there was a looser feel, partially due to the first round being complete and partially due to the healing of heavy hearts.
Yes, the Grateful Dead is gone, but the spirit certainly lives on. You just need to search for it, and this festival is a great place to start. As the song says, "You can't let go, and you can't hold on. You can't go back, and you can't stand still." This troop managed to let go and move forward while still holding on. Thank you to all who were involved.
Of Further Interest...
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