Furthur than the average reunion band
The setup was simple: A jungle of eclectic musical instruments drenched in a soft purple light, as white-haired roadies went about their quiet work in the silence before the dawn.
As the doors opened at the Mullins Center, the peaceful masses slowly trickled in and pooled into an unwashed, anticipatory pit crowd. The goal of the night was to experience a slice of history, a cultural phenomenon that became an iconic representation of hippie culture in the last half of the 20th century. Furthur – the world’s only touring Grateful Dead reunion band – was visiting the University of Massachusetts, and the faithful were in full attendance.
The crowd was mixed. Dreadlocked students were joined by members of the clean-cut, middle-aged crowd who carried their children in tow. And as always, the hardcore first generation “Dead Heads” arrived in droves. They came from very different backgrounds, some traveling hundreds of miles to attend, but everyone in the audience was there for one purpose: to groove.
When the band marched out on stage, they made no introduction and held no pretense of flashy showmanship. Strings plucked, drums slammed and the show began.
Furthur was formed by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in the style of the Grateful Dead. While the two were founding members of the Dead, the rest of the musicians have been recruited from similar-style jam bands and side projects of the founders. This makes it part reunion, part tribute band to the legendary original, and the spirit and feel are very much intact.
The Massachusetts Daily Collegian spoke to one dedicated Dead Head, who specified that his last name not be used. A central Connecticut native, Kevin was, like the rest of the crowd, relaxed and ready to feel the music.
“I love it,” said Kevin, when asked how he felt about the event. “I drove six hours to Virginia last week for them, so this is nothing.”
Having attended several Dead-style shows in the past, including a live show “in ’95 … that was two months before Jerry [Garcia] died,” and “three Furthur, five RatDog [Bob Weir’s side band], and two The Other Ones,” Kevin was an ideal form to remark on the Grateful Dead’s long-standing appeal.
“It’s the music. It makes you feel good inside … plus the drugs,” he said.
The drugs were a part of the concert experience that cannot be overlooked. For over 40 years, The Grateful Dead – with their long-form jam sessions and trippy cover art – have been a rallying point for psychedelic drug use. The glow of lighter-meeting-joint peppered the crowd like flashbulbs at the Super Bowl, and a thin cloud of smoke hovered over the proceedings.
While the stage setup was not complex and the band members never spoke to rally the crowd, they nonetheless put on the show that the audience wanted to see. The overhead lights strafed the crowd, shifting through the spectrum to dramatic effect. Spotlights cut through the hazy air like light sabers, illuminating the swaying, dancing, tripping masses on the floor.
The music itself was, in classic form, little more than a jam session. Furthur transitioned seamlessly from classic hits to bluesy free-form. As their sets faded almost into silence, with perhaps nothing but a bass riff to pierce the din, they always built back up to a full-fledged album track.
In some of their sets, the band’s country influence came through strongly. “Don’t Murder Me,” in particular, packed a serious punch of twang. Throughout most of the concert, however, the Grateful Dead’s unique style of early rock ‘n’ roll dominated the soundscape.
After a sing-along finale of “Not Fade Away,” the crowd was ecstatic. The band retreated backstage and bassist Phil Lesh spoke to the audience for the first time during the show. He thanked Amherst, plugged his favorite cause (organ donation) and invited Furthur back out on stage. They finished with the soulful hit “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and, as the lights went out, faded away into the night.
Andrew Sheridan can be reached at email@example.com.