Furthur, starring Joe Russo
Madison Square Garden, NYC
November 20, 2010
I: Help on the Way->Slipknot!->Shakedown Street>Jack Straw, El Paso, Wharf Rat->Two Djinn, Terrapin Station Suite
II: The Mountain Song->Dark Star->Other One->St. Stephen->The Eleven->Death Don’t Have No Mercy, Franklin’s Tower
E: One More Saturday Night
In the interest of keeping things relatively more brief than I have been on this blog recently, I’m going to try to just give a quick overview of Saturday night’s Furthur show at MSG. Which is tough, because I probably have a lot I could say. But then I’d be up until 3am writing a blog post, and you wouldn’t read it anyway…Still, it seems a shame to only talk a little bit about this show.
I should start with the proviso that I don’t ever listen to Furthur shows on recording. The music is certainly good enough – it stands on it’s own and deserves to be heard as a completely separate entity from the huge corpus of Grateful Dead recordings. I just don’t go about downloading their shows – I don’t really know why. I guess that, in the end, I still have so many good Dead shows to listen to. Which is weird, because Furthur is not merely just the next version of the ever-changing post-Jerry Grateful Dead world. It is, as its name implies, going to the next level, taking these songs that formed the main body of the Grateful Dead universe and expanding on them, owning them, making them Furthur songs and not Grateful Dead songs as played by Furthur.
And that is one of the things that makes this band so much fun – that they make these songs their own, and do things with them in such a unique way. One of the best anomalies they perform is the rearrangement of setlist placement “rules” that more or less became a template in the 80s and 90s. Wharf Rat in the first set? Terrapin in the first set, much less, to CLOSE the first set? Help>Slip>Shakedown! Come on!!
But it’s also how they play these songs that is remarkable, and for that, I think that Mr. Joe Russo, the drummer for Furthur, deserves a lot of credit. He is, without a doubt, one of the factors that makes this band so exciting to listen to, and the best post-Jerry version of the GD.
I spent a lot of Saturday night’s show paying particular attention to Russo. I’m not sure why…But it’s become clear to me that he is doing something special. His sense of rhythm is remarkable – he somehow manages to avoid showing you where the “1″ is while at the same time establishing a strong metric grounding for the songs. He strikes me as something of an ADHD drummer – never content to stay focused on one beat for long. He could never just hold down one beat endlessly for ten minutes. Which is why I’ve always found his collaborations with bands like the Disco Biscuits a little bit out of place. That means that his playing is constantly changing, evolving, every measure is either a slightly, or severely, different combination of sounds than the others around it. It’s specifically in his use of the drums typically used as fills – toms, blocks, alternate striking techniques, and crash cymbals – that I think he is most unique. He uses them in combinations that seem to draw from a more melodic, more conversational basis. If each drum sound were a melodic note, then Russo would be singing a very intricate tune. Whereas most drummers would sound like a minimalist composer.
In the context of the Grateful Dead’s music, I think what Russo brings is not only a fresh outlook, but an ability to do what neither Bill Kreutzman nor Mickey Hart could do: as a single drummer he incorporates elements of both their styles. The Grateful Dead were at their loosest and most interesting, improvisationally speaking, from 1971 to 1974, when they only had one drummer in the band, Billy K. Because of this, they were able to lead jams in exciting directions with only one drummer having to follow along, and thus making transitions even easier. With two drummers, coordination in taking a jam “out there” needs to be more precise, because otherwise it would just sounds cacophanous. That’s just my opinion, I most certainly could be wrong on this.
Russo plays with the jazz sensibility and technique of Kreutzman, but he incorporates so much of the toms and cymbals between the beats that he begins to approximate the rhythmic juggernaut of Mickey Hart. Taking Hart’s multi-layered approach to drumming, and combining it with the steady foundation of Kreutzman’s style, Russo gives the Furthur something that previous bands never had: a 1-drummer solution to the 2-drummer dilemma. And, he provides the versatility of being the sole drummer, who can follow the jam wherever it may lead without having to worry about the other guy. Russo’s ADHD playing style also works great for Furthur, because just as things are getting deep into a jam, like last night’s Wharf Rat, for example, he will change his beat up on you, shifting the entire affect of a jam into new places.
His presence was most palpably felt during the epic Terrapin Station Suite. As I said earlier, I don’t really follow Furthur, and so I had no idea they have recently been playing the entire Terrapin Suite. Terrapin Station is my favorite song, by any band, ever. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Terrapin, going so far as to make it the subject of study for a scholarly paper I’ve given at a couple conferences. Furthur absolutely slayed Terrapin, attacking it with tremendous energy and blowing me away in the process. A little jam before the lyrics even started let everyone know that this song was not just a notch in the setlist, but a full-on centerpiece of this already tremendous first set. The lyrics were nice, and Kadlecik played his own little solo before launching into Jerry’s usual solo on the vocal melody. As the song finished up with the most sublime of guitar solos, rather than finishing, the music took a hard left turn into At A Siding, the next section of the full album version of the Terrapin Station Suite.
OK. This was NOT something I was expecting. And I just couldn’t believe it. How much were they going to play? Would this be like the 3/18/77 Terrapin>Alhambra and then call it quits? As this section ended, the band launched full bore into the Terrapin Flyer section, the drum heavy, MIDI-inflected penultimate section. This was never my favorite on the album. I never liked the flutes, the orchestral touches, and I thought the overall tone of the guitar parts sounded cheesy. Not here, no way. The chord changes were intense events, played with distortion and passion. And Joe Russo. Oh man, Joe Russo. He absolutely killed this section, playing with all the ferocity that the two-drummer juggernaut used to bring to a particularly intense Drumz segment. Russo annihilated the intensely percussive section of the song, which, it should be said, was originally intended to be an improvised drummers solo with sparse chords in the background. Russo kept the rhythm at a fast tempo, all his playing was impassioned and deliberate, crushing ultra-fast runs all around his set, from toms to snares to cymbals. His fluidity while moving around in set was remarkable, and of course, always keeping that strong metric foothold in the background, somewhere.
After this dance-fest, the final guitar solo felt that much more celebratory. Rather than the song’s usual ending, which finishes with this solo but without all the other sections in between, this time the solo felt like a true closing. Playing the full suite recontextualizes the solo as something familiar to return to. It is, after all, the “Return to Terrapin.” Have we, in fact, gotten there by the end of the song? I still think that “there” is too undefined a concept to answer that. Let’s just say that it felt different, it felt special. I never thought I would enjoy hearing all those album version sections that, rightly, got jettisoned in live performance. But they work. With this band, they work.
Other highlights included the dramatic Help>Slip>Shakedown, when the band emphatically strummed the opening chords to Shakedown instead of the roundup beginning of Franklin’s Tower. Holy crap, the room erupted. Something about hearing Shakedown when you’re in the middle of midtown Manhattan. Jack Straw was fantastic, very peppy and upbeat. Come on Bobby, even with a teleprompter, you still can’t get El Paso right? That’s OK, because a huge first set Wharf Rat absolutely killed. The middle part was almost twice as slow, which really drew out the “I know that the life…” held note. A beautiful, mixolydian-infused jam came out of this one, with Russo really guiding the music around itself, twisting it so that the swirl of melodic notes and rhythmic oddities from Phil, Bobby, and John were constantly interacting with the changing drum patterns.
The second set featured a very nice Dark Star>Other One combo, with a menacing Phil bomb to open Other One. St. Stephen went at a really nice clip, much faster than the late 70s versions, and no William Tell Bridge to bring it over to The Eleven. There was some Other One teasing moments in this jam, before finally cooling down in Death Don’t Have No Mercy. For whatever reason, this is one song that I just do not want to hear anyone other than Jerry sing. So, at the very least, led Kadlecik sing it! Bobby just doesn’t have the same melancholy to his voice, the same sense of having lived a life too wreckless. Jerry had that. Kadlecik imitates it. Bobby just turns it into his own blues/rock sendup. In that case, I’d rather hear something that Bobby does sing well.
A fun Franklin’s Tower closed the show, rounding out the detoured Help trio that opened the show. The requisite Saturday Night encored. I would think that, after playing some 300 or 400 Saturday night concerts, Bobby and Phil would get tired of playing that song every f(&^in time. But hey, it’s their band…
All in all, a fun fun time at the Furthur show. Crap, I wrote too much again. Oh well…
[UPDATE, 11/28/10] Check out this video of the second half of the Terrapin Suite, especially the second section, “Terrapin Flyer” which begins around 2:15. Joe F’n Russo.