Phil Lesh is taking the music Furthur

Kevin Fuller

Every once in a while during a Furthur show, bassist Phil Lesh will have to remind himself that Jerry Garcia is dead.

“It’s uncanny — I have to look up and make sure we’re not in an alternate universe where we have traveled back in time,” says Lesh, laughingly referring to the band’s newest addition, guitarist John Kadlecik.

Lesh is enjoying his most recent project’s lineup. That includes includes Kadlecik, an expert at imitating the fabled guitarist of Lesh’s former band The Grateful Dead. “It’s really kind of sweet and wonderful.”

Furthur, the latest project from former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Lesh, has just kicked off its summer tour.

“It’s always about taking it further,” says Lesh from his home in San Francisco with a mouth full of eggs. He apologizes politely, as he is fitting in several interviews while eating breakfast before hitting the road.

It’s been life on the road for Lesh for pretty much his entire life.

Lesh’s band, Phil and Friends, has been touring steadily since Garcia’s death in 1995, and Weir’s band, Ratdog, has done the same. Lesh and the remaining members of The Grateful Dead have reunited several times over the years in various reincarnations of the band.

After a spring tour in 2009 with The Dead, Lesh and Weir were contemplating what to do next.

“Bob and I enjoyed playing together so much, we decided to keep it going,” said Lesh. “I had put Phil and Friends on hiatus.”

Weir and Lesh have been joined by Kadlecik, longtime guitarist for Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra. Kadlecik takes pride in sounding eerily similar to Garcia.

“He’s been channeling Jerry for a long time,” said Lesh. “That’s not all he brings though.”

Garcia has been gone for years — dying in 1995 from a heart attack — but the music has never stopped. It’s a summer tradition for Dead heads to argue over which former Grateful Dead member’s band reminds them of their musical maker. This summer, they won’t have to decide, as Lesh and the former Grateful Dead guitarist and vocalist Weir have combined cosmic forces and recruited some of their friends to tag along.

Rounding off the group will be drummer Joe Russo, from Benevento Russo Duo; keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, a staple in Phil and Friends; and backup singers Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson. The group will play 18 shows — most of which are in the northeast — and wraps up its tour in San Francisco, the old stomping grounds of The Grateful Dead.

Life on the road isn’t what it used to be, Lesh admits. The band breaks up the tour in several legs, making each leg of the tour shorter. They also bring family along for the trip. “Traveling is not the fun part — the music is.”

Lesh says the band isn’t exactly trying to relive the glory days of The Grateful Dead. “The more different it is from the last time we played a tune, the happier I am with it.”

In fact, Lesh and Weir have four new songs the band will feature on its summer leg. “Bob and I are bringing in new music,” Lesh says. Both have been writing with long-time Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. “We haven’t even scratched the surface with this unit.”

Moving forward musically but not forgetting the past seems to be Lesh’s way of coping with the loss of his musical and life companion Garcia. “The novelty has kind of worn off,” said Lesh. “I miss the man profoundly — as a friend, as a companion.”

Aug. 9 marks the 15-year anniversary of Garcia’s death, and Lesh still thinks about the possibilities. “I always had the feeling we never played all the stuff we were capable of,” he said. “I’ll always wish he was still here.”

The 70-year-old Lesh is constantly doing what he loves to do and says there are no plans to quit touring anytime soon. “They’re going to have to pry the bass out of my cold, dead fingers,” said Lesh. “I’m a musician. That’s what I do.”

Messenger Post (Canandaigua, N.Y.)