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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2005/03/06
by John Zinkand

Fun with Phil

The Mardi Gras Phil and Friends show with Umphrey’s McGee on February 12th was an incredibly good time. My wife and I flew down to San Francisco for the show, and it was well worth the time and money involved. Not that the actual music was mind-blowing, but the entire adventure was serious fun. Had the very same music been played at a non-Mardi Gras show, I would have been slightly disappointed. The music was great at times, but it was also shaky, slow, tentative, and sloppy at other times. Also, there was not much in the way of deep space improvisations as the jams were straight ahead and upbeat for the most part and the song selection did not include much from the catalogue of the Dead’s spacier explorations. But I wasn’t necessarily looking for those qualities in a Mardi Gras show.

Our flight leaving Portland at 9:00am was cancelled after we had sat on the plane for about 2 hours. We were able to reschedule for a 12:40pm flight. While this was mildly upsetting, we just went with the flow, hit the bar, and enjoyed some morning Bloody Mary’s to pass the time. We had planned on hitting the MOMA and then grabbing some sushi before checking in at the hotel and heading to the venue. We wanted to wait in line so we could get a great seat for the general admission show. As it turned out, we had just enough time to fly in, check in at the hotel, and then head down to wait in line. The line was small but festive when we arrived. People were wearing beads, colorful masks, bizarre outfits, feathers, face paint, and other decorations too numerous to try and capture accurately in words. Bottom line is things were very festive in line. Our hour and a half wait paid off big time with killer seats on what used to be called "Phil’s side". We had the first row in the balcony perched just above the stage, directly in front of the PA system. The sound was loud and the there weren’t many seats with better views in the house. We settled in with a 12 dollar Heineken, put our feet up, and chatted with the friendly heads all around us. Before Umphrey’s even played their first note of the evening, we were already stoked. You just can’t beat the vibe at a Bay Area Dead related concert. Everyone is cheerful, yet respectful of their neighbors. People share with one another, offer conversation with strangers, save seats for each other, and are just generally very courteous and congenial. Any time I was in a line at the bar or for the bathroom, I would get into an interesting and engaging conversation with another person who loved the music and had similar tastes and opinions. It’s that intangible family Dead vibe that is so wonderful to experience but so difficult to put into words. It was there on this night in a big way. Umphrey’s was playing their opening set in the biggest indoor venue they have ever played. They seemed a bit tentative and eased into the set with Great American. They continued to play a very song oriented set that did not open up much in the way of jamming. There was a pretty good jam in Bridgeless and a fun but brief jam in In the Kitchen, but overall you could tell the band was holding back in the instrumental sections. When the tune Partyin’ Peeps flowed into a cool jam, the excitement levels increased dramatically as Phil Lesh walked on stage and bassist Ryan Stasik departed. Phil played with Umphrey’s for a few minutes while they finished up the jam that ended Partyin’ Peeps before starting up a nice version of Franklin’s Tower. Although it was the same tune they played with Phil before at the Great American Music Hall, most of us were not there to witness it the first time around. People were psyched, dancing and cheering. Phil was a little choppy on the vocals and remembering all the verses, but the jams were very high energy. Both Jake and Brendan ripped some serious solos, with Brendan’s being particularly tasty and quite lengthy. Phil was all smiles and it was obvious the Umphrey’s boys were honored to have him there on stage. The Phil show was good, too, if a little uneven. And it must be hard to get everything just right with that many people on stage. The band was huge. There was Phil, Jimmy, John Molo, Chris Robinson, Barry Sless, Steve Molitz, Tim Carbone, John Skehan, Todd Sheaffer, Andy Goessling, Carey Harmon, Glorian Jones, Jackie LaBranch, and Theryl "The Houseman" DeClouet. For you folks keeping track at home, that’s 14 musicians on stage. So keeping that in mind, the music was extraordinarily good for such a large band that could not have all practiced together very many times. Houseman was decked out in a white suit and a white top hat and sung the vocals to the opening tune Party. There were some other tunes about carnivals and the entire first set was very upbeat with the exception of a slower interlude of Railroad Earth tunes. A very quick Cumberland Blues with multiple segues in and out of the song, a solid Loose Lucy, and a great version of a set closing Bertha were highlights of the set. But the entire highlight of the show was still to come. During the set break everyone seemed to really settle in and get comfortable. We met many people and chatted away like old friends. Folks waited in lines, drank more drinks, frolicked in their costumes, and were just generally fun and festive. By the time the lights went out after a very lengthy set break, the crowd was ready to party and dance some more. The band came out donning full Mardi Gras regalia. Each member wore some sort of mask or costume and Phil was donning a shiny blue shirt and a long red cape. Super Phil! The band played the tune Carnival Time and that’s what it was. The place went nuts. It was insanity. The balloons dropped, the confetti flew, scantily clad dancers came out on stage and started dancing, and the parade floats started making their way around the floor of the venue as folks threw beads and whatnot to the crowd from them. Iko-Iko was next and was the obvious choice for the rest of the Mardi Gras parade. Smiles were plastered everywhere as everyone in the room seemed to enjoy the festive vibe and great eye candy the dancers, balloons, confetti, and intricate parade floats provided. The second set was more enjoyable for me on a musical level. I liked the song selection a little bit more. But to be honest, I went in to this show with pretty low musical expectations. This show was first and foremost a party with music being icing on the cake. Because of that mindset, I didn’t really listen to the music as closely as I usually do, so delving too deeply into music critique would be sort of ridiculous. The band played a great, speedy version of Sittin’ on Top of the World after the Mardi Gras madness subsided a little, which reminded me that I was actually at a music concert, not a crazy party in New Orleans. It was great to hear New Speedway Boogie and I was really impressed with the band’s playing and Robinson’s vocals in particular on both Dylan’s Hurricane and the Beatle’s You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. After space, the jam slowly found its way back to the familiar refrain and chorus of Playin’ Reprise, and the band closed out the old Weir penned favorite with vigor. Next was what could have been a set closer, Don’t Ease Me In. But the band surprisingly continued on with a bouncy version of Scarlet Begonias that crackled with energy! This was the first in a string of psyche outs as the band went on to play a series of "set closer" tunes. Next they played Brown Sugar, then After Midnight, and finally the real set closer, Midnight Hour. Everyone was totally caught off guard buy the multiple midnight themed tunes to close out the show. It was a very long evening of music, beginning just before 6:00pm and ending well past midnight. The double encore of US Blues and Box of Rain was even more icing on an already very sweet and drippy cake. We had seen our friend from Eugene during the set break. I had looked for him just after the Umphrey’s set without any luck and had pretty much given up hope on bumping into him. But when I returned from one of my numerous and expensive trips to the bar, there he was sitting and chatting amiably with my lovely wife. We had a nice little conversation and he pointed out where he and his crew were sitting, quite some distance away and further up from us. We agreed to meet up there at the end of the night and go out for a few drinks and whatever else somewhere around town or back at the hotel. But by the end of this very long day with an unexpectedly long ending provided by the energetic band, my wife and I were just too tired to think about dealing. We would have both been zombies. We quickly jetted back to our room and ate the sandwich, nuts, apple, and jerky we had packed. Our cell phone vibrated from within my wife’s bag on the floor as I drifted off to sleep and I remember thinking, "Sorry, Mikey…"

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