Phil Lesh: Wonderful and Beautiful
Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh has taken his rotating allstar outfit, Phil Lesh & Friends, on a national tour for the first time. The supergroup is sharing the stage with Bob Dylan, a longtime Dead buddy.
The tour has featured frequent Friends guitarist Steve Kimock of Zero, KVHW and The Other Ones before he declared “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more” and left the tour; Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks, Little Feat’s Paul Barrere and Billy Payne and Hot Tuna legend Jorma Kaukonen.
Kimock and Kaukonen also are part of the lineup on “And Love Will See You Through,” a double-CD comprised of live material recorded at a Phil Lesh & Friends show just after the bassist’s 1997 liver transplant. The album contains mostly Dead material, including the rare “New Potato Caboose” and a delicious version of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” sung by Kaukonen.
Lesh also has been busy supervising the archival committee that put together “So Many Roads (1965-1995), the Dead’s first box set. The just-released five-CD retrospective spans the group’s entire career from folk-adelic nuggets by The Warlocks, the group name that preceded Grateful Dead, to the haunting closing track, one of the last tunes the late Jerry Garcia wrote with Robert Hunter.
When not busy attending their two sons’ Little League games, Lesh and his wife, Jill, run a charity organization called the Unbroken Chain Foundation, which helps fund San Francisco Bay Area arts and educational programs. Unbroken Chain is a smaller version of the Rex Foundation, the Dead’s in-limbo charity arm.
Just prior to the Phil and Friends tour I spoke with Lesh about his health, his Friends, the box of Dead, his charity work and the many jam bands he’s inspired as one of the granddaddies of improvisational rock. He says he couldn’t be more delighted about the vast and colorful scene.
In the wake of hepatitis C and a liver transplant, how are you feeling?
I’m feeling really excellent. I feel 20 years younger. When you go through something like this, you find out how many important functions and not only that, but how many little, tiny bullshit things have been bugging you for years that you have to be paid attention to.
Has clean living made you stronger?
It did in that it prepared me better for the operation. I made a change in my lifestyle nine years ago.
Did your recuperation inspire any music?
It inspired me to live, but it didn’t inspire any music.
Now, there’s Phil Lesh & Friends’ ‘And Love Will See You Through’ with Jorma and Kimock. Are you guys going to make a studio album?
Will you continue making live CDs?
Yeah, I’d say that was a pretty good bet at this point.
Comment on how the Friends always have a rotating lineup.
It’s always a rotating series of guys. The first gig that I played under that name, I don’t even remember who was on that gig. I’ve done about 20 shows with different lineups. The idea is to take Grateful Dead music and other music that I like and other material that the other musicians like and bring it into this context and treat like it was repertoire and try to interpret it from their perspective.
So that the fact that it’s always different musicians gives it a fresh perspective?
Always. It’s always in flux. The idea is at this point is to have one band for the first part of the tour and one band for the second part of the tour.
Phil Lesh & Friends have never played in the Northeast until now, so folks are really excited to get to see it in that area. Now that you’re fully recuperated, will you be coming East more often?
That’s really up in the air. The idea is to play with musicians that I like, that inspire me, challenge me and spur me on to different interpretations of the material. And the idea is to play places that I enjoy playing. I was lucky enough to play a couple of my favorite places this summer, like Red Rocks (in Colorado). They’re places that the Grateful Dead couldn’t go anymore, because they were too big. So what I’m hoping to do is keep at the level where I’m playing the neat places, so that it’s neat for the audience to be there as well. So wherever those places are, that’s where I’ll go.
So it’s very informal. You can do it how, when and wherever you want.
Well, for instance, I won’t be touring in the spring outside the Bay Area, because my boys are in Little League. I’m a real Little League dad.
Do you coach?
Oh no. I don’t know that much about the game.
But you like to watch.
Yeah. To me, it’s more exciting than any big league ball game I’ve ever been to.
Are old are your sons?
Grahame’s going on 13 and Brian’s 10.