Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Got to Try to See a Little Furthur

     So as some of you are no doubt aware, Furthur is going to be taking a touring hiatus after their jaunt down to Mexico in January.  This, while sounding ominous for a band with a history of hiatuses (hiati?) , should be good for the band for a number of reasons.  I think that they will come back relatively soon and with a renewed vigor.  While they're touring schedules have been less that strenuous lately, generally focusing on extended runs at a single venue at a time and not lasting more than a  month sometimes, Bobby and Phil must still get tired.  However, sometimes I think I'm getting a little tired of their strategy for these tours, and that a larger break might shake them of the parts I find questionable.

     My biggest beef with the current strategy is their seeming indifference to the evil Ticketmaster.  While I might be looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, it seems like back in the day you could see a run of three Dead shows without dropping more than thirty bucks.  Nowadays, however, it's generally impossible to find a ticket for less than sixty dollars, unless it's at an outdoor venue that has lawn tickets available.  I get that dues have to be paid to band members, crew, and venue staff, but that pricing really makes it difficult for broke college-age Heads to see our favorite music!  And when other class acts like Rubblebucket or DSO charge less than half as much for their shows, it really makes even less sense to me!  So hopefully Furthur will take this hiatus as a chance to figure out how to get out form under the boot of Ticketmaster and get tickets to their fans who would love nothing more than to catch some of the magic.

     This is also something that comes up when encountering Dead Heads who see the Dead as a kind of competition.  The question of how many shows one has seen is a definite factor in how much of a Dead Head one is to many people; but here is an area where my generation of Heads is at a severe disadvantage.  Not only does Furthur not tour as many months out of the year as the Dead used to, the tours are, as I mentioned before, not as wide-ranging as they used to be.  Combine those two factors with the price issue, and we're lucky if we see Furthur once during a tour!  I probably won't see them live at all in 2013 because I couldn't get my work schedule to coincide with their stop at Canandaigua (nearest show to Ithaca) this summer, and even if I had that show got thundered out in the middle of "Caution!"  Don't worry about me now, I'll see Phil & Friends in Port Chester with my folks, but the point still stands that I would knock over any number of old ladies to get to see Furthur.

     One thing that I hope stays the same is Furthur's recent affinity for theaters instead of arenas.  While maybe a part of the price problem, I would gladly pay (a little) more to see them in a great space than to be crammed like another sardine into a hockey rink.  To be fair, two of the best Furthur shows I've seen were in arenas (03/29/11 in Binghampton & 11/11/11 in Syracuse) where the band really knew how to utilize the sonic space of the arena.  Binghampton wasn't even that crowded or hellish, but getting into and out of the Syracuse show was definitely somewhere between having your teeth pulled and paying taxes as far as enjoyability is concerned.  People mooing is only funny as far as the event staff distinguish you from cattle, and after that point you're just not sure if that was a moo for help or a moo as an attempted joke.  Theaters, however, are generally classy, low on hassles, and guarantee you'll have something beautiful and interesting to stare at when "Dark Star" is peaking around you.

     So I'm probably being too optimistic, but I really think that when Furthur comes back to us they will be a more accessible band as far as us fans are concerned.  They will have worked out better ticketing strategies, rested enough to increase their touring range and time, and will be a fresher band in general.  Anyone who has seen or heard any of their latest shows will agree that this band is only getting better as time goes on, and is really hitting their stride and finding new places to shine in songs.  "Jack Straw" has been stretched into a new, mind-eating song that not only rocks the way the Dead always got it to, but goes also goes into those furthur-out spaces.  "St. Stephen" has also never been so well formulated or carried out with such consistency as Furthur does it, let alone all the other songs that the Dead stopped doing ("King Solomon's," "The Eleven," "Doin' That Rag," etc.).  And hopefully there will be a continuation of the webcasts that have become more popular recently.  The entire Interlocken Festival was available for streaming with video for a minimal cost, Sirius XM routinely broadcasts shows live online (please let there be a New Year's Run!), and of course TRI Studios, Bob's play-pen, is a perfect place for broadcasts.  So here's to the end of Furthur's first cycle of tours, and to what they have in store for us when they return!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Oh, You Never Saw the Dead?

     So I went into a local pita joint here in Ithaca the other day that I had noticed had a sign with a dancing bear that said "Dead Head Parking Only."  I have a similar sign (but with a Stealie), and appreciate any business that openly admits their roots, so was excited to try it out.  When I walked in I jokingly asked if they had a discounts for other Dead Heads, which they did - but with one caveat.  You had to have seen the Grateful Dead, not a post-Jerry manifestation of them.  While I obviously didn't hold it against them and enjoyed the food anyway, that attitude is surely one of the main hurdles that my generation of Dead Heads has to deal with.

     Trust me, if I had any say in the matter, I would go back to the sixties and catch all the great artists between then and now, especially the Dead.  However, my last test of a time machine didn't go too well, and I'm not anticipating another test anytime soon, so I'm stuck going forward in time with the rest of you.  Not that there isn't any great music nowadays, within and outside of the Dead world; bands like Rubblebucket Orchestra, Furthur, Dark Star Orchestra, and the Big Mean Sound Machine (a local "sweat funk" band) have all given me the best musical experiences of my life.  However, and most Dead Heads will agree with this, the Grateful Dead have that certain magic to them that no other band seems to master.  As my friend and I often say, "they play with the old powers."

     Furthur, more than any other Dead-related band I've seen or heard (or any other music for that matter), can certainly capture that magic for me.  Whether it's at an outdoor show like the Gathering of the Vibes, in a hockey rink in central New York, or a theater in Boston, Furthur can grab the music from the air, walls, and people in attendance to transport/transform everyone.  While DSO usually puts on a great show, whether they're doing a cover of a particular concert or one of their original sets, they don't seem to have access to that same magic.  The Dead, and Furthur, when they're having a good night have something metaphysical to their sound, as if what you're experiencing in their music are the same forces and patterns that are at work behind the laws of physics throughout the cosmos.  The same forces that create supernovas and black holes are the same forces propelling "Dark Star" and "The Other One," and even "Big River" or "Ramble on Rose," to a certain extent!

     But I'm getting off topic.  What I'm really trying to get at is the answer to the question, "who are the Dead (and why don't they follow me everywhere I go)?"  When I first started seeing Furthur I drove my dad crazy by insisting that I had seen the Dead, but I think that statement is still true, or at the very least close enough.  Phil and Bobby both saw the progression of the Dead from the beginning to Jerry's death (not the end!), and have obviously been crucial in the evolution of the music.  I think having them in the same band is a huge factor in Furthur's ability to play that magical music, and having the other incredible members of the band give it a unique sound.  While they don't sound like the Grateful Dead most of the time, the Dead of the 80's or 90's sounded nothing like the Dead of the 60's; it isn't about sounding the same, it's about playing with the same spirit.  So does that make other iterations of Dead bands 'The Dead?"

     I can't really answer that for The Other Ones, The Dead (from the 2000's), or the Rhythm Devils, because I have unfortunately not seen any of them.  I've heard some recordings, but not enough to really make that call.  I think that any band with any member of the GD will certainly have at least some of that magic, but there's no guarantee that they can achieve lift-off.  I think Phil & Friends can capture it pretty consistently, but different line-ups alter the chemistry in obviously different ways, so there's still no guarantee that you will get a glimpse of the Grateful Dead monster at work behind the players.  Furthur, however, is pretty consistent, partly, again, because they have those two old guys, but the whole band also seems to be very much in the spirit of the Dead.  As a result, I feel more than comfortable calling these guys the Dead, and I think that much of what I experience at a show is a legitimate off-shoot of a GD concert.

     So what do you think?  Am I talking myself into believing a fairy tale?  Is the Mickey Hart Band the real Dead?

Friday, September 13, 2013

I'm Sorry, I Had My Headphones In.....

     I know that headphones, Walkmans, and CD players long out-date my own existence, let alone my time as a Dead Head, but there is an undeniable difference between the listening habits of now and back in the day.  Today's technology allows me to go virtually anywhere with a mind-blowing assortment of music in my tiny black San-Disc device.  On any given day I can be seen walking around sunny (or not so sunny) Ithaca with my ear buds in, my head in the clouds, singing anything from "Born Cross-Eyed" to "Foolish Heart."  While there seems to be nothing wrong with this (there isn't, I swear!), I end up asking myself some questions about it from time to time.

     While I've had to concede to my dad that nothing beats a good set of speakers playing LOUDLY, I truly appreciate the perspective on music that headphones provide.  Forgetting for a moment the obvious advantage in mobility that headphones have, they do have some perks that a speakers lack.  They create a unique and enclosed sonic space in which you are the center.  They are also fairly impermeable, so outside noises don't intrude on a soft "Dark Star" or the more delicate ballads.  While sometimes that means you might get run over by the occasional truck or school bus, more importantly it gives a really intimate feeling to the music: these guys are playing straight out of '73, and only I can hear them!  Which can be pretty weird when you're sitting on the bus listening to, say, the jam out of "The Other One" on Dick's Picks 1, and the guy on your left doesn't even know the world is dissolving around you!  Just as weird, but perhaps easier on the brain, is just laying in bed, sitting in the library, or chilling on the couch with your favorite show surrounding you.  You really can hear every nuance they play and every bad joke that Bobby makes without worrying that anything else will drown it out.

     However, while doing exactly that, I've found myself asking if this is really the way to be listening to these shows.  Can you just load up a psychedelic payload of Dead shows from the archive and bring the band and the entire show anywhere?  In reality, whatever show you're listening to was performed REALLY LOUDLY, for thousands of people, in a very specific time and place. While the Dead's songs may be timeless, individual performances of them are very rooted in the "here-and-now"...of the "then-and-there."  So in some ways, they can lose a lot of their power when you just take them anywhere.  I'm sure I've missed many of the most inspired jams in a show just because I was trying to cross the street safely (what a loser) or get on the bus.  In fact, there have been times where an entire set would go by, and I'd only half hear it because I was busy doing things like studying or working!  The horror!!

     But really, there are times where I feel that I'm almost doing the show an injustice, because even though I can hear Phil clear as day, I know that those bass bombs are meant to be flying free and wide.  Jerry's solos are meant to rocket into the night sky, or to careen wildly off the walls of Winterland, not just the walls of my skull.  So sometimes I will have to postpone a show, or even a particular song, until I get home and can crank it on the stereo.  My stereo and living room may not be the Wall of Sound and Winterland, but at least I can feel Phil there, not just hear him.

     Another benefit to speakers, even car stereos, is that you have a sort of ritual space where you can control the other variables of life, and just focus on the music.  Sure the maintenance guy might decide to mow the lawn right outside your window right when Phil and Billy are trying to musically tear down your house, but then I guess you can switch to your headphones.  The speakers make better use of that ritual space, but headphones allow you some privacy in it.  Having a designated space to freak freely, jam out, or whatever other euphemism you prefer for the listening to the Dead, keeps your mind on the music, and not whatever daydreams you may otherwise entertain.

     So does that mean I'm going to stop listening to the Dead everywhere I go?  Hell no!  It's just a matter of finding the right time and place to really listen to them.  While it's more acceptable to zone out during yet another "Jack Straw," or my thousandth "Sugaree" (nothing against either of those songs, of course), there are few things worse than realizing you just missed the entire fist half of a '73 "Eyes of the World" because you were walking around, lost in your thoughts.  Do any of you go through similar experiences?  Know the real flaw with headphones?  Leave it in the comments!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

21st Century Dead: A Mission Statement and Introduction

     So this may be a short-lived experiment, but here we go!  In this blog I intend to address the issues, experiences, and various dilemmas that my people face in the 21st century.  Who are my people, you may very well ask?  My people are the Dead Heads who fell in love with the Dead in the post-Jerry, post-GD, millennium in which we live.  We have heard the call of the music across the decades and are possibly as various in description, preferences, and social alignments as the original Dead Heads were (and still are!).  While the music that we love is the same music as you veterans love, our experiences of it seem necessarily different due to the chasm of time between now and Jerry's death; between now and the peak of the Dead's popularity in the 80's; between now and the Wall of Sound; between now and the Acid Tests for God's sake!

     To be honest, the majority of what I will write about in this blog centers around my personal experiences and conceptions; after all I can't get inside any of your heads!  However, part of the reason I'm writing this is to find out exactly that, to see if my experiences are echoed by any of my peers.  I'm even hoping that many veterans will find reflections of their own experiences echoing down the years, and can shed their valuable light upon them!  I'm sure many veterans will dispute claims that I make with the (realistic) objection that I wasn't there (man), and can't possibly know what it was like; in fact, I hope you do, and can tell me what it was like!  Just please keep it civil, and understand that my knowledge comes from second-hand accounts, recordings handed down to me, and various Dead books and websites.

     So how is it that a guy born in '91, who couldn't even say "Aoxomoxoa" when Jerry passed away, became infatuated enough with the Dead that he would start a blog about it?  Well part of it must be genetics, because both of my parents (my dad especially) were crazy about the Dead in the 70's.  While they became disillusioned with the scene in '79 because of the increasing frequency of shows in arenas and hockey rinks where people are treated like cattle, their love of the music remained int heir hearts.  While growing up they mostly played Bluegrass, Folk, and Country in the house, a lot of psychedelic rock made its way through as well, and the bug got into me.  Starting in high school I got on a progression of rock that led me, with some brief forays into punk and angsty rock (damn teenagers), from the Beatles to the Dead in college.  As soon as my dad turned me on to the Doors after I graduated high school, he immediately realized I was a prime candidate for the Dead, and got me onto the Airplane/Hot Tuna kick.  I would start going on about Jack Cassady being the greatest bass player the world ever saw, and he would politely tell me I was crazy, and should check out some guy named Phil Lesh..."oh yeah, he plays for that Grateful Dead band, huh?  Maybe I'll check it out..."

     That was at the beginning of Freshman year in college for me, and my mind was...let's say ripe for expansion.  I was realizing that not only did I love the balls-to-the-wall psychedelia of the Airplane, I also liked the blues and folk of Hot Tuna -- a mandolin?  Sick, dude!  So the natural progression for me from that to the Dead started with Skull & Roses.  Sure, I already knew and loved American Beauty, but that was because my dad kept insisting it was the greatest album of all time, and who was I to argue with him? Anyway, he kept telling me to listen to something live by them, so Skull & Roses it was, and I've never looked back.  I'm sure some of my friends would go back in time and prevent me from ever discovering the Dead if they could, but that's just too bad for them.  From those humble beginnings I've ended up with almost 1000 hours of Grateful Dead and Dead-related music on my computer, and 2 designated Dead MP3 players whose contents are constantly changing.

     That's all I'm writing for now, but more focused posts will be following, with topics ranging from the luxury of vs. tape-trading back in the day, to experiences and conceptions of bands like Furthur, DSO, Phil & Friends, etc., because they're all someone like me has to see these days, but they are certainly worlds away from the Good Ol' Grateful Dead.  Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, and interesting anecdotes as the mood moves you.