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Furthur rises from the Dead

Grateful Dead members Bob Weir (left) and Phil Lesh bring their new group, Furthur, to Lowell. Furthur plays a spectrum of Dead tunes, including some that were rarely performed before. Grateful Dead members Bob Weir (left) and Phil Lesh bring their new group, Furthur, to Lowell. Furthur plays a spectrum of Dead tunes, including some that were rarely performed before. (Prnewsfoto/Green Leadership)
By Scott McLennan
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2010

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Furthur is not the Grateful Dead, but they’re coming closer.

Since the 1995 death of guitarist Jerry Garcia, the remaining members of the Grateful Dead have assembled many different bands — together and as satellite projects — to carry on the work of a group that became as much a cultural touchstone as musical force.

Last year, original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart recruited guitarist Warren Haynes and keyboard player Jeff Chimenti to tour as the Dead. The results, however, were erratic, leaving guitarist Weir, 62, feeling like the road trip was more work than fun and bassist Lesh, 70, saying the music didn’t seem to be moving forward.

“The main thing about that Dead tour, though, was realizing how much I loved playing with Bobby,’’ Lesh said. “And it turned out he felt the same way about playing with me. So we went out for dinner after that tour and said, ‘What are we waiting for? Let’s make a band.’ ’’

Such heavies as Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Steve Kimock, Jorma Kaukonen, and John Scofield have taken on the Garcia spot at various times. So it was a bit of a shock to see Lesh and Weir reach into Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra and pluck out its “Jerry’’ — John Kadlecik — to be in their new band, Furthur.

So far it’s working. Adopting and tweaking the name that author Ken Kesey gave to the bus used by the Merry Pranksters of the 1960s, Furthur eschewed the hoopla whipped up for the ’09 Dead tour and started hitting moderate-size venues in California last September. They kept keyboard whiz Chimenti and brought on drummer Joe Russo as Hart and Kreutzmann pursued other projects. The new band played a few shows on the East Coast in December and as momentum built, additional concerts unfolded in the early months of this year. Now Furthur is headlining summer festivals and bringing their own shows into bigger venues.

Furthur is playing June 30 at LeLacheur Park in Lowell and closing the three-day Nateva festival in Oxford, Maine, on July 4. (Nateva also features Flaming Lips, moe., George Clinton, and many others. For more on the festival, see Page 5.)

Weir said that Kadlecik came in fluent in the language of the Grateful Dead and is doing well learning the dialect.

“Phil and I have been playing together for so long that if he shades something one way or the other, I know where he’s going. But the object really is to surprise each other, and that’s where the fun is. I think with John, there are more surprises than not, so I want to know him a little better so I know where he’s heading,’’ Weir said.

While Furthur mainly sticks to a repertoire of songs associated with the Grateful Dead’s run from 1965 to 1995, dusting off tunes shelved decades ago, they revealed their knack early on for group improvisations and fluid interplay between the musicians.

“There’s still all this great stuff we rarely played like ‘Rosemary’ and ‘What’s Become of the Baby?’ that is fun to bring back,’’ Lesh said of two deep cuts from the “Aoxomoxoa’’ record, which the band played in its entirety along with five other Grateful Dead albums at two concerts in May.

Lesh’s wife, Jill, writes the set lists for Furthur shows, with Lesh attesting to her “knack for telling a story with the songs.’’ The upshot of this is that Furthur does not mimic the flow of Grateful Dead concerts. Spacious vehicles for improvisation such as “Scarlet Begonias’’ and “Fire on the Mountain,’’ for instance, may carry an audience into the encores, whereas the Grateful Dead almost always used those songs as set openers.

“I think the word is getting out there: Don’t go expecting any particular songs, but what you’ll see will be very cool,’’ Lesh said.

Kadlecik comes to the game not only having re-created a multitude of complete Grateful Dead concerts — which is Dark Star Orchestra’s shtick — but also schooled on violin and mandolin. He did not dare look at his audition with Furthur as a chance to replace Garcia.

“The whole idea of auditioning for a part doesn’t really capture what happened. I think that’s looking at it like a reality TV show where they build the band,’’ Kadlecik said. “Knowing how to work in a band that plays an improvisational style is more important than sounding like Garcia.’’

Still, Lesh occasionally finds himself caught off guard.

“He can sing a line in a Jerry song and it’s uncanny, and I have to look at who’s on stage, but in the next breath he’ll rip something off on the guitar that is nothing like anything Jerry ever would have played.’’

It’s a dynamic between the old and new that has Lesh and Weir feeling that Furthur is more about forward motion than nostalgia.

Scott McLennan can be reached at smclennan1010@gmail.com.

FURTHUR

At: LeLacheur Park, Lowell, June 30, 7 p.m. Tickets: $39.50. 800-477-6849 or www.tickets.com