When musician Jerry Garcia died last year after some 30 years as leader of the Grateful Dead, many asked where the rest of the folk-rock-blues band and its remarkable camp-following of "Deadheads" would go. The answer this summer has been "Furthur."
The Furthur Festival, which just finished up a tour of 31 cities around the country, has been a talent-packed gathering of ex-Dead band members (two of whom have their own groups), plus some of the best rock performers in the business today, including Los Lobos, Bruce Hornsby, and Hot Tuna.
Like the more than 2,000 Grateful Dead performances over the years, the latest incarnation has had the feel of a feudal village on a day when the monarch declares a holiday and lays out a spread for the peasants. The citizenry was mellow, funky, bedecked in colorful garb, and the air was rich with the smells of food from booths around the perimeter of an open field.
But there was a new high-tech, global-village aspect as well. Off to the side, under a tent, was a bank of six Macintosh computers where anybody could log on and post comments (and snapshots of themselves) on the DeadNet (http://www.dead.net/). Cyberspace, it seems, has become part of the future of Grateful Dead fans and musicians.
It's as if the 16th century had met the 21st. The Web site has become a lively spot for swapping comments about this summer's tour, reminiscences, and personal exchanges with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and drummer Mickey Hart. In addition to (or instead of) following the music from venue to venue, "Webheads" have been able to take the journey virtually.
While there were lines at the computer tent, those attending the Furthur Festival shows by the tens of thousands have come mostly for the music. There was plenty that was familiar and some that stretched the expectations of long-time fans.
Los Lobos (the Los Angeles group that often opened for the Dead and is arguably the best rock band in the country today) played the Dead's "Bertha," as well as some of its own songs. Bruce Hornsby, who filled in as keyboardist for the group for a year or so, brought his dynamism and incredible virtuosity to "Jack Straw" and "Samson and Delilah." Bob Weir's new group RatDog (featuring bassist Rob Wasserman who played with Jerry Garcia's other bands, and Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson) worked masterfully through "Walkin' Blues," "Turn on Your Love Light," and "I Need a Miracle."
Between the five band sets that stretched over seven hours, British folk singer John Wesley Harding, bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart (a great new talent reminiscent of Taj Mahal), and juggling dynamos the Flying Karamazov Brothers kept the crowd on its feet.
Mickey Hart's group Mystery Box has been the highlight for many festivalgoers. Ethnomusicologist Hart has assembled a group of world-class percussionists with an equally impressive six-woman British a cappella group called the "Mint Juleps" (four of whom are sisters) out front.
Hart's 1991 album "Planet Drum" won a Grammy, and Mystery Box pushes further (or "furthur") onto new musical ground with this stimulating blend of voices and drums.
"Remember, this is not the Grateful Dead, where all systems were on automatic," Hart told participants in a recent computer on-line discussion that also included lyricist Hunter. "We now have to create a new sonic environment from scratch. What's emerging here is that this tour is developing a character, a sound, a feeling, a way of going, a spirit, of its own. And will continue to do so, as long as our enthusiasm prevails."
The uniquely spelled title of the festival comes from the psychedelic bus of the same name that carried writer Ken Kesey and his countercultural "Merry Pranksters" through the 1960s. Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and other novels, is a native Oregonian who lives on a farm near here. For the Veneta, Ore., performance he acted as occasional master of ceremonies decked out in an Uncle Sam suit.
One unfortunate leftover from Grateful Dead shows has been the pervasive evidence of marijuana use at Furthur Festival shows.
Jerry Garcia passed on at a drug-treatment facility. As they move on to new and exciting musical ventures, the band's remaining members should use their considerable influence with young people to discourage this illegal and harmful part of the group's legacy.
Grateful Dead enterprises, meanwhile, are thriving despite the passing of the group's leader. The Grateful Dead Mercantile Company in Novato, Calif., peddles a large collection of books, recordings, clothing, and memorabilia. The group's charitable organization, the Rex Foundation, continues to support a variety of causes from Greenpeace to the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.
The Grateful Dead financed the Lithuanian men's basketball team at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Dead percussionist Hart co-composed (with Philip Glass and others) and conducted the opening-ceremony music in Atlanta.
But for now, the future of Grateful Dead musicians may best be summed up in Hunter's lyrics from a song by Hart's Mystery Box: "Depend on the wind of distant drums/ We'll know the next step when it comes."