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Touch of Grey on Jerry's Birthday

Grateful Fans and Musicians Make Sure the Ventura Leg of the Furthur Festival Is an Event Garcia Would Have Loved

August 03, 1996|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — The birthday boy couldn't be there--at least not in the flesh--but they threw a great party for Jerry Garcia at the Ventura County Fairground's Seaside Park on Thursday, the day the Grateful Dead guitarist would have turned 54.

This first of two Southern California stops for the Furthur Festival, a concert tour topped by bands featuring former Dead members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, wasn't a recreation of the Dead, musically speaking. But the Deadheads didn't seem to mind.

Hippie-esque fans cavorted in birthday party hats, shouted "Happy birthday, Jerry" as if he actually were on stage and twirled away blissfully to the seven hours of music on the outdoor, oceanside dirt racing track. And there was nary a mention of the fact that next Friday will mark the one-year anniversary of Garcia's death of a heart attack while in a drug rehabilitation facility.

Instead, as suggested by the title of the festival (a reference to the destination posted on Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters bus), the focus for both the musicians and the Deadheads was more on taking the long, strange trip to new vistas.

"It's what's left," said Sam Janis, an 18-year-old New Jersey resident who has been on the road to follow the tour for the last two weeks, about the chance to experience the Deadhead gypsy lifestyle. "It's given to us as a gift, and what a very positive thing this is."

Sure, there weren't as many people here as there would have been for a Grateful Dead concert--about 9,000, rather than the tens of thousands that swarmed around the original band. But these were, to a larger extent than at latter-day Dead concerts, the serious fans, the ones for whom the band was a lifestyle, not just a concert attraction. For them, this was a way to carry on and move ahead.

The musicians, too, performed as if they viewed the chance to play for the Deadheads as a gift. Weir's band Ratdog, Hart's Mystery Box and part-time Dead member Bruce Hornsby each take a distinctive part of the Dead sound and philosophy and spin it in their own direction. Despite clocking in at seven hours, the show didn't feel like the kind of sprawling marathon associated with the Dead. The other acts on the extremely efficiently run show --L.A.'s Los Lobos, Hot Tuna (featuring former Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonenand Jack Casady), English expatriate folkie John Wesley Harding, Delta blues revivalist Alvin Youngblood Hart and even comedy jugglers the Flying Karamazov Brothers--share some aspect of the Dead's aesthetic.

Of the Dead principals, drummer Hart's new project is the most artistically successful, and most unique. Building on his long-standing passion for world music rhythms--he's written two books on the subject and, as an artist and producer, has released a series of albums of historical field recordings and new fusions--he has woven a vivid and enticing pan-global tapestry with his new band. Naturally, rhythms are the foundation, with Hart joined on this tour by four world-class percussionists drawing on African, Indian, Latin-Caribbean and American traditions. That alone was enough to keep the twirlers twirling.

But what makes Mystery Box so distinctive are the lovely, quite pop vocal melodies, performed terrifically both on the group's recent debut album and in this show by the Mint Juleps, a London-based soul ensemble comprising four sisters (Debbie, Elizabeth, Marcia and Sandra Charles) and two longtime friends. Live, their spirit is especially infectious.

Unfortunately, Ratdog, which followed Mystery Box and a brief acoustic set from Hot Tuna that covered for a stage set-up change, brought that spirit down a bit. This wasn't much of a shock to the Deadheads. With Weir taking the blues-based Americana threads of the Dead's tapestry, this band (co-fronted by bassist Rob Wasserman) has earned a reputation for lacking somewhat in the dynamics department.

However, the addition of pianist Johnnie Johnson--famed for his landmark '50s work with Chuck Berry--has given the band added spark. But a gorgeous, subdued version of his own "Looks Like Rain" (from his 1973 solo album "Ace" and a longtime Dead standard), a sparkling bass solo by Wasserman, improvised on the Dead's psychedelic-era "The Other One" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" and a solid closer of "Turn On Your Love Light," another blues number that was a staple of the Dead's early years, showed some stylistic range and were definitely crowd-pleasers.

It was pianist Hornsby, who sat in with the Dead for a year and a half after the 1989 death of Brent Mydland, that may have most embodied the Dead vibe--though his music bears little direct resemblance. Loose and freewheeling, Hornsby led his versatile, horns-spiked band through an impressive set that skipped from his pop hits ("Step by Step," "Mandolin Rain") to free-jazz workouts to teasing bits of familiar tunes (including "Love Light") that matched immaculate musical skills with a playfully mischievous streak.

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