Furthur - 11/14/10 U.S. Bank Arena - Cincinnati, OHOn Monday, September 27 of this year, Cincinnati enjoyed its best professional sports day in 20 years. The Cincinnati Reds had just clinched the National League Central pennant and were poised to appear in their first post-season since 1995. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals had just spanked the Carolina Panthers to continue their rebound from an embarrassing season-opening loss to New England and improve their record to 2-1. That morning, I logged onto Facebook and posted a note to my peeps: Savor this moment, because it’s all downhill from here.
Set 1: Dancing in the Streets, Althea, Me and My Uncle, Friend of the Devil, Cold Rain & Snow, Seven Hills of Gold, Birdsong, Promised Land
Set 2: Deal, Sugar Magnolia > Scarlet Begonias > Estimated Prophet > He's Gone > King Solomon's Marbles > Days Between > Fire on the Mountain > Throwin Stones > Sunshine Daydream
E: Samson & Delilah
And so it went. The Reds exploded on the launch pad against the Phillies and were swept in the Division Series. The Bengals—the most ineptly-run franchise in any sports league—reverted to form and have now lost six games in a row. Dreams of a Cincinnati World Series win followed by our first-ever Super Bowl victory turned quickly into nightmares.
As Midwestern cities in particular are largely defined in the public mind by the quality of their pro sports franchises, this reality in large part explains why Cincinnati suffers from such a severe inferiority complex. It also explains why we tend to show visiting bands such a good time—we’re secretly afraid that if we don’t shower them with love, they won’t come back. Our city’s desperate need for validation is the main reason why Phish, for example, loves to play here and always throws down with high-energy shows. We demonstrate our appreciation with thunderous, clinging, utterly abject and debasing adulation.
So when Furthur rolled into town on a brisk November Sunday, there was every chance that the Cincy crowd would do its part to show Phil, Bobby and the boys a good time. I hooked up with the Cincy wing of the extended Coventry family, Iggy and G-Money, and after a quick pit stop at G’s favorite O’Bryanville pub, we made our way to US Bank arena. We had last visited that storied venue during Phish’s two smoking 2009 shows, and we were looking forward to getting our white-boy grooves on again.
Going in, each of us had varying expectations for the show. While he’s become a raging Phish-head, Iggy has always kept a comfortable distance from the Grateful Dead and was simply taking one for team. G-Money is a Deadhead from way back in the Pleistocene Epoch and was chomping at the bit to see his heroes for what may prove to be their swan song tour.
As for me, my first jamband show of any type was the Grateful Dead show at Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas on May 30, 1992. That day literally changed my life: it saw both my first Dead show and my first acid trip, and I’ve spent the rest of my life since then trying to recreate that experience. My last Bobby and Phil sighting happened at a Deer Creek Dead show in 2004. It was something of a train wreck, with Mickey Hart singing like a pig stuck in a washing machine and Warren Hayne’s inflicting “Desperado” on an unsuspecting crowd. This Furthur show could be my last chance to recapture some of that Vegas magic.
And magical it was. We scored primo seats, six rows up from the floor right next to the stage, close enough to count the whiskers in Bobby’s beard. The sound was mostly spot-on, although we couldn’t hear Bobby in the mix and we wondered if the roadies no longer bothered to plug him in. The stage set-up was low-key, the lights unobtrusive, which left the focus of the show on the music. The boys opened with a tight, high-octane Dancin’, and we were off and running. I leaned over to Iggy and warned him that every song would sound like “Ocelot,” which turned out to be mostly true.
Now G-Money, who is wise in such matters, claims that this incarnation of the Dead experience is the best he’s heard in ten years. Based on what I saw, I have no cause to disagree. Surrounding themselves with younger, veteran talent like Jeff Chimenti and Joe Russo keeps the music fresh and on point, forcing Bobby and Phil to focus on the business at hand. And John Kadlecik, or “Fake Jerry” as he will forevermore be known, is a revelation. He doesn’t so much imitate Jerry as channel his spirit; after 12 years in the minor leagues with the Dark Star Orchestra, he’s finally been called up to the Show, and he acts like he belongs here.
First set highlights included a blissful Cold Rain and Snow and a slamming Promised Land that had the Cincy crowd, a motley combination of millennial chippies, chrome-domed middle-aged accountants and acid-damaged pensioners, pogoing all around the two-thirds full venue. There were no clunkers at all in the first set, really; even the new Robert Hunter-penned Seven Hills of Gold slipped right into the set like a visit from an old friend.
The boys came right back out swinging in Set II with a raucous Deal that slipped like butter into Scarlet Begonias. I was disappointed that the standard Scarlet > Fire combo didn’t materialize, because it was that very combo that first blew my mind in Las Vegas 18 years ago and made me a fan for life. But the band came around full circle to Fire after a prolonged detour centered on an amazing King Solomon’s Marbles that was the closest approximation of a mothership sighting we would witness all night. Fire is my favorite Dead song, and to hear it again with Phil and Bobby nearly close enough to touch was a true moment of grace.
I’d give you the obligatory caveats here, but there really weren’t any—Phil sounded amazing, Chimenti smoked the keys, Russo kept the place rocking and Bobby seemed energized by the crowd. Even Iggy walked away impressed. The only downside to the evening was a 19 year-old Nazi-wannabe security guard who harassed our section the entire night and prevented us from smoking down, and the guy in the john who spilled his beer on me while I was taking a piss. Of course, I turned around in surprise while in mid-stream and pissed on his shoes, so I got the better end of that deal.
If anything was missing, it was something most likely unrecoverable: That sense of being in the presence of the Divine. Maybe it was Jerry, maybe it was the drugs, but a Grateful Dead show back in the day was church for a lot of people. The band’s ability to tap into the eternal groove and deliver transcendence at will is something that none of us are likely to experience again. What Furthur delivers is a good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll show, built on some of the greatest songs in American popular music. That was enough to send the crowd home happy and satiated. All told, it was a triumphant return to the Queen City for our old friends from San Francisco. The Cincy crowd lived up to billing and gave the band the warm, high-energy group hug it deserved. Our sports teams may suck, but we haven’t forgotten how to have a good time.
Mr. Fabulous is a writer and film reviewer from Cincinnati, OH. Follow him on Twiiter (@fabulous65).