furthur impressions '97

Blockbuster-Sony Entertainment Centre, Camden, New Jersey
Saturday, June 28, 1997

   With more and more of its waterfront area reduced to rubble, the City of Camden was once again ready to welcome the Furthur Festival under hot, sunny skies. A year after the festival's initial run, the crowd was diminished in size and the show was lacking in focus, its organizers having failed to learn some important lessons from the 1996 experience.

   Parking was plentiful and the police presence was minimal; there were plenty of tickets on sale at the Box Office, and lots of food/drink/merchandise was available in the outdoor common area of the venue. We filtered in about 5:30 and were fortunate to have 4th row center seats. Bruce Hornsby and band took the stage shortly thereafter and did a great job with his own material and with Dead covers such as Black Muddy River, Masterpiece, and Jack Straw, the latter two with Bob Weir on vocals. Jorma Kaukonen/Mike Falzarano did a great "in-between" set with Rob Wasserman on standup electric stick-bass for three songs.

   Ratdog followed and did not stray from the Dead-repertoire, including versions of West L.A. Fadeaway along with the more predictable Miracle, Minglewood, Throwing Stones, Other One, & One More Saturday Nite. The band, with Matt Kelly on harmonica & sax & keyboard, moved from chunky to funky and did a reasonable job of drawing the crowd in. The addition of Bruce Hornsby's backup vocalist, Debbie Henry, on Wang Dang Doodle did demonstrate one thing, though: the band needs a lead singer! And Bob's turns at playing lead guitar demonstrated another thing: the band needs a lead guitarist!

   After Ratdog, Arlo Guthrie, who had been serving as a highly amiable M.C., entertained the crowd with three songs and a few stories, closing with his hit "City of New Orleans".  Unfortunately, during his set, Planet Drum was loudly setting up behind the curtain and interfered with Arlo's acoustic numbers. When the Planet Drum set started, Mickey & his percussion all-stars launched into a groove and kept it up for a while, stopped, launched into another groove, kept that going for a while, and repeated that pattern for close to an hour. It wasn't very interesting and really broke the momentum of the show.  The only saving grace was when Jorma came on stage for Planet Drum's closer, Fire on the Mountain, and did some highly tasty guitar parts. Without a lead instrument or a vocal group, Planet Drum should not be given a prime spot on the Furthur Festival.

   Perhaps the highlight of the entire show was the three-song acoustic jam following Planet Drum, with Bob & Rob, Bruce Hornsby on keyboard, Jorma & Mike, Arlo Guthrie, and Sherri Jackson on violin. First was "El Paso", with Weir reprising his time-tested Dead performance, complete with vocal gaffe. "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" with Arlo on lead, was very effective, with Sherri's violin solo especially outstanding. "Friend of the Devil" with Weir on lead demonstrated how this song has become a folk standard.

   We then made the mistake of staying around for the Black Crowes. The addition of this band to the lineup is almost inexplicable, as their music has nothing in common with the music of the Dead or related musicians. In fact, it's pretty much incompatible. While lead singer Chris Robinson has a powerful voice, the band's musical ideas are weak and their musicianship is mediocre. They make up for that by playing and singing very loud, which in this case served only to blast the audience's good vibes into oblivion. With so many good bands around, there's no reason to give the headlining spot on the Furthur Festival to this third-rate Humble Pie imitation. It's an insult to the loyal fans who have supported the Dead for so long.

   Facing a strict 11 PM curfew, the entire troup returned for a final jam, beginning with an uninspired "Spoonful", a soulful "Higher and Higher" with Bruce on lead, backup singers and a horn section, and a good rendition of "White Rabbit" with Debbie Henry doing a great job on lead.

    All in all, a flawed offering. There are two main lessons that should have been learned from the 1996 Furthur Festival:

1.   Seven hours is too long! Not only is it nearly impossible to create a good pace for a show that long, but it's also not desirable, as it drains the audience's energy away from other things relating to the concert experience, such as socializing before & after the show.

2.   There's no need to keep the crowd constantly entertained. Insert a break or two during the show so that people can walk around, see their friends, etc. without wondering if they're missing some good music.

     Beyond that, I think it should be recognized that there's a huge amount of talent on the tour. Eliminate the Black Crowes, use Planet Drum more judiciously, and feature two or three sets of great music featuring the entire troupe - and you'll have a worthwhile and consistent show.

     Let's hope Furthur '98 turns out better!

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