Furthur Festival ’96

The Furthur Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center (Saratoga Springs, New York)
July 6, 1996
(Originally published in Metroland).

When I arrived at SPAC Saturday, I received a fly-bill that plotted the Furthur Festival’s scheduled events. I didn’t pay it much mind, assuming “structure” would be an optional menu item at this outgrowth from the Grateful Dead’s amorphous tribal gatherings — but give the Festival’s logisticians some tie-dyed kudos, because Furthur’s acts swept along in perfect consonance with the written schedule’s apparently immutable sidereal tick-marks. (Too bad the same couldn’t be said of the automotive melting pot on Route 9.)

Samba Nova (a conga-bonking line with dancers) warmed the early crowd with their Brazilian hip-swivel-lubricating music. Hot Tuna then hit the stage with their whaling electric blues- based offerings: Material ranged from traditional country-gospel numbers through songs from singer/guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s solo albums and then back to Kaukonen’s and bassist Jack Casady’s days with Jefferson Airplane via an ardent rip on “Embryonic Journey”. And call me crazy, but the rounding, greying, sunglasses-wearing Kaukonen looked eerily like a certain late, nine-and-a-half-fingered guitarist when you squinted with smoke in your eyes. Or at least ardent audients around me seemed to think so.

John Wesley Harding was doomed to failure-by-contrast when he hit the still Tuna-stinky stage; the pavilion audience fled for the Vending Village during his set. Los Lobos were next on the bill with a blend of blues, rock, folk and whatever else struck their fancy. The crowd remained low-key (still anaesthetized by Harding?) until Los Lobos got the day’s first full-scale stand-and-shout response by closing with the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha”. It was unsettling to see their originals get short-shrift in favor of that cover, but give them credit for doing a transcendent job on a song so closely associated with that dead Dead guy.

Alvin Youngblood Hart took the next solo acoustic set; his blues were more interesting than Harding’s Billy Bragg Lite (i.e. only half of the pavilion audience vanished). Bruce Hornsby followed Hart onstage with his massive piano and a guitar-free backing band. You could still hear Hornsby’s lounge roots: he writes and works hooks like nobody’s business, has a great penchant for pushing audiences’ pleasure buttons and is a tremendous interpretive improviser. He could have really worked some magic with a nimble-fingered (if not nimble-footed) chunk-style lead guitarist on his team. Didn’t the Grateful Dead have a guy like that once?

And speaking of the Grateful Dead: drummer Mickey Hart and guitarist Bob Weir offered the evening’s final sets (interspersed with performances by the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers) with two very different spins on how to go Furthur beyond their prior Long Strange Gig. Hart’s Mystery Box featured a “Who’s Who in Drums” line-up augmented by the (usually) a capella vocal sextet, Mint Juleps. The band sounded like Sweet Honey in the Rock fronting Tangerine Dream until Hart moved into front-man land with spoken-word delivery of some Robert Hunter poesy. (Hart won Mystery Box’s biggest audience response when he rapped about seeing some dead guys named Jack and John and Jerry. Wonder what that was all about?) Hart’s vocals annoyed at first blush, but his enthusiastic delivery won me over by the time Mystery Box’s set ended with a Weir-fortified “Fire on the Mountain.” Go, Mickey! Go!

Weir’s new gig is standard-blues-delivery-unit Ratdog, with bassist Rob Wasserman, ex-Primus drummer Jay Lane, piano legend Johnnie Johnson and harmonicat Matthew Kelly. It looked great on paper, but the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts; the only fireworks came during “Cassidy” (with Hornsby subbing for Johnson) and Wasserman’s solo run through “St. Stephen”, “Amazing Grace” and “The Star Spangled Banner”. Ratdog’s nostalgia revue segued into a jam outro where all-star permutations of the Festival’s acts beat-up stock bar-band favorites like “Gloria”, “The Weight” and “Satisfaction”. This probably would have been a fine ending for a regional blues fest — but it disappointed when you were expecting one last stab at invoking the restless hairy ghost who seemed to provide focus for prior sets. Oh well . . . at least the jam session ended right at the scheduled time.

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