Thursday, September 28, 2006

Furthur Festival was hot ticket

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A huge concert draw in 1996, the Furthur Fesival was a hot ticket in more ways than one.

Named after the uniquely spelled destination shown on Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters' bus during their 1964 journey across America, the festival evolved from the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.

Garcia's passing led to a decision by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, that the long-lived psychedelic band would call it quits rather than replace their beloved leader with a new lead guitarist.

But the 30-year-long Grateful Dead trip didn't end with the band's announcement. In the following months it was revealed that singer and guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Mickey Hart, and a line-up of other bands would stage a summer tour.

The performers included Weir's Ratdog, Hart's Mystery Box, Bruce Hornsby, Los Lobos, Hot Tuna, Alvin Youngblood Hart, John Wesley Harding, and to add to the carnival atmosphere many fans expected, the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

My wife Sue and I quickly set about getting tickets for a show at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wis. scheduled for June 29. While we were elated to get tickets for the concert by mail order, we were disappointed we had to settle for lawn tickets rather than the reserved seats we wanted.

Still, our excitement mounted, as did the temperature, on the morning of the show. Leaving Escanaba, we traveled south as the mercury continued to climb. By the time we reached Milwaukee it was well over 90 degrees, and in a car without air conditioning, we were beginning to suffer.

Our outlook improved in the early afternoon as we neared our motel room in the resort community of Lake Geneva, where we expected to find cooler conditions. But, their air conditioning didn't work.

So, after a brief respite, we headed to the Alpine Valley amphitheatre to take our lawn seats under the stifling sun.

To our surprise, at the gate we discovered that reserve tickets were indeed still available. We quickly sold our original tickets, got the better ones and prepared to take out seats in the covered pavilion area in front of the stage.

We had precious shade and great seats for the 4 p. m. show, only the seventh of the tour.

With such a mammoth concert and so many performers playing in different combinations, it's difficult to remember what order they appeared in, but highlights of the show are easy to recall.

Ratdog was clearly under Weir's leadership as they performed some classics and a few Dead covers, such as "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Wang Dang Doddle," and "Throwing Stones." Weir had a special piano player in his band in Johnnie Johnson, the person refered to in Chuck Berry's immortal song, "Johnny Be Goode." Seeing Johnson perform the tune he inspired was a sentimental high point.

Hart's Mystery Box, a 12-piece band, brought percussion to a new level with "Fire on the Mountain," complete with a group of female singers called the Mint Julips.

Bruce Hornsby, who occasionally sat in with the Grateful Dead following the death of keyboardist Brent Mydland and had a No. 1 hit with "The Way It Is," gave his all with "Spider Fingers," "Western Skyline" and "Jack Straw."

Los Lobos, the East Los Angeles outfit fronted by David Hildago and Ceasar Rosas, paid their respects with "Angel Dance," "Evangeline," "Cinnamon Girl," and Dead favorite "Bertha."

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, who dropped out of Jefferson Airplane in 1972 to form Hot Tuna, entertained the crowd with a memorable version of "Keep on Truckin'."

Other performers included bluesman Hart, who did a Robert Johnson styled set; British singer-songwriter Harding, who performed "When the Beatles Hit America;" and the Flying Karamazov Brothers. The acrobatic troupe seemed to need a little additional practice, flubbing many of their stunts.

But, the show wasn't about acrobatics anyway, and the crowd knew enough to supply its own circus-like tone to the procedings.

As midnight approached, many of the performers grouped on stage as the show ended with a half-hour jam before an appreciative, if sweaty, audience.

Sue and I remember it as a hot show, no matter how you look at it.
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