furthur impressions

Part I - Saratoga
Saturday, July 6, 1996


      The skies were threatening, cars were backed up farther than you could see, and the parking lots were filling up just as you reached them, but after a year of diversions and aimlessness it seemed just like home. The same scene, the same crowds, the same faces, the same souvenirs and refreshments. Time and loss are no match for the resilience of the scene to spring up from a cold start on a summer's day.
 
      SPAC is a modern pavillion set in a rustic setting, surrounded by lakes and streams and picnic areas. The length of the show meant that it took the crowd a few hours to leisurely reach their spots inside or on the spacious lawn, mill about, and check out the sanctioned vending area. By six o'clock, the skies darkened and a cold wind began to blow through the grounds, just as the crowds started to thicken. By seven o'clock, the skies had cleared, the sun returned, and the crowd had comfortably settled in to the space and into their heads.
 
      Meanwhile,back in the pavillion, Hot Tuna had played a blistering set to a small audience and Los Lobos played some of their best tunes to a slightly larger crowd. The rhythm of the Furthur Festival was very different than that of a Dead show, gradual, unrushed. Not until RatDog's 10 PM set did the crowd reach a familiar level of high-energy. Or maybe it was because the crowd wasn't certain how to react to music that didn't exhibit all the well-worn landmarks of past shows. Dead tunes certainly seemed to elicit the familiar responses - but only if the arrangements weren't too alien.  
      A lot of people had conflicting feelings on hearing the tunes that Jerry sang, knowing that any line or musical phrase would remind them why exactly such an agglomeration of musicians were trying to entertain them and divert their attention from the fact that what they really wanted to hear could never be duplicated. Bertha first evoked that reaction; Los Lobos plays it pretty close to the Dead's arrangement. Up in the front row, a couple had brought their very young daughters to see the band, and the two little girls, new to walking, were having a great time trying to figure out how to dance - to Bertha - oblivious to the more serious undercurrents of the moment. Well, I thought, I don't feel a sense of loss when I hear a Glenn Miller tune, so these girls and their generation will be dancing twenty years from now, carrying on the scene and the whole spirit - which to them is starting now.

      The whole show, though a marathon for those in attendance, exhibited high musicianship and professionalism throughout, from Jorma's guitar mastery to Bruce Hornsby's virtuoso performance to the percussion wizardry of Mickey Hart's ensemble. Mickey's group - Mystery Box - appeared to be mystifying most of the people in the audience. I guess it wasn't rock 'n roll. Still, it was music, real music, and a great sound, with so much rhythmic variety that it made the standard lead instruments unnecessary. Maybe heads are too conservative, appearances notwithstanding. Mickey, by the way, vocalizing with a cordless headphone mike at the front of the stage, makes a more convincing rock star that Bobby -- if we only knew!
 
     RatDog strode the line between blues, rhythm 'n blues and rock 'n roll, which made keyboardist Johnnie Johnson fit in perfectly. It's developing an identifiable sound of its own, not the Dead's sound, but one accessible enough to reach a wide audience. If you look at the setlist, you will see one powerhouse number after the other - Bobby leading musicians from many different backgrounds in the rock 'n roll classics - reminding people of the transcending abilities of music.
 
     But still, the Furthur Festival is just the Furthur Festival, keeping the spirit alive until something new arises - whatever that may be. Until then - I guess we're still just lookin' for a home.

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