Phil Lesh: This Weird America
After dissolving his improv-heavy quintet in 2003, few thought Phil Lesh would find another permanent lineup for his ever-changing solo band. But, following a mention of singer/songwriter Jackie Greene’s name in a promotional interview for the 2006 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Lesh stumbled upon the perfect frontman to anchor Phil Lesh & Friends’ tightest lineup since the group’s classic incarnation.
Despite a limited knowledge of the Grateful Dead’s material, Greene played with Lesh for the first time in 2007 and quickly clicked with not only the bassist, but his core bandmates: mainstay drummer John Molo, Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz (who signed on in 2004) and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (who joined in 2006, following the departure of Jimmy Herring). Settling on a sound that recalls The Dead’s early 1970s roots-inspired prime, as well as Lesh’s more recent collaborations with Ryan Adams, the current incarnation of Phil Lesh & Friends is in many ways the bassist’s first tried-and-true band since the reformed Dead dissolved in 2004. Greene’s vast knowledge of decidedly American musical styles like folk, country, blues and bluegrass has also allowed Lesh to revisit a number of long-retired songs, ranging from signature jams like Bob Weir’s “Truckin’” to more obscure tunes like “Born Cross-Eyed,” along with the occasional acoustic interludes on special occasions.
Below Lesh discusses his upcoming run at New York’s Nokia Theatre, his future recording plans and why he’s kind of like Sarah Palin.
MG- Next week Phil & Friends will open its second residency at New York’s Nokia Theatre. What, specifically, drew you to the Nokia, and do you hope to host similar residencies in other markets?
PL- I’m not always completely up on all the details. The Beacon went dark for a little while, so we were looking around for a place to do what I like to call “long term residences” in cool places that are small enough for good acoustics. [Promoters] AEG came up with the Nokia and it sounded so good in there. It is such a congenial, convenient place. We did well last year, so they invited us back again. I would like to do more residencies with my bands now. Bouncing around on a bus is not my idea of fun [laughter].
MG- Musically, do you approach a residency like a show with its own arc and flow?
PL- Yes, very much so. We try not repeat songs. We had eight days of rehearsal, so we learned lots of new and old stuff. We expanded our repertoire.
MG- Have you written any new songs?
PL- No, not exactly. I have co-written for other projects. Actually, there is one for this band, a song I co-wrote with Warren Haynes.
MG- Earlier this year you played the Grateful Dead’s first seven albums and Dead Set in their entirety at the Warfield. Can you talk a bit about that run specifically? What sparked the idea to revisit that early material?
PL- It was fascinating because a lot of those songs hadn’t been played by me since we recorded them. Songs like “Cream Puff War” we had only done like two times and “Born Cross-Eyed,” I don’t think we ever played live. I don’t know whyit is hard to know why we made decisions like that back in the day. Essentially, it was hard because we were reconstructing the songs. It was a fascinating process because all the parts were a little confused. Because there is a point where you realize you can’t do everything like it was on the original record, so you have to go ahead and interpret it. And that’s where the real fun comes in.
We weren’t trying to be chronologicalwe were trying to do a retrospective. It was my wife’s idea, actually.
MG- At this point, are there any Grateful Dead songs you have yet to play with Phil & Friends that you’d like to pull out of retirement this tour?
PL- Maybe my memory is folding [laughter]. I know I want to bring back a lot more Bobby songs and maybe some old ones that I wrote that never really got off the ground.
MG- Jackie has been doing a great job interpreting Bobby’s vocals.
PL- He’s a real chameleon. It is really handy to have him. At the same time, he doesn’t sound like anyone else. He can channel vocals without imitating them. It’s a rare gift.
MG- You have also been covering Ryan Adams a good deal recently.
PL- Ryan’s talent is so large that it also relates to the Grateful Dead. Cold Roses relates to The Dead even though it has nothing to do with them. His work is absolutely, genetically in sync with our tour set, and so they are in sync with our songs. It’s delightful to use his great songs and tear them apart because their sensibility is so in tune with The Dead. Then there is his other stuff which is equally brilliant, only it covers different genres.
MG- What was your introduction to his music?
PL- The Jammys [in 2005]. The goal was to have people from the jamband world play with people they normally wouldn’t play with, which is a fantastic idea by the way. So when they had me host the Jammys, and they had me play with John Mayer, Buddy Guy and ?ustlove from The Roots. Then they had me playing with Ryan, but I hadn’t heard his music. I went on iTunes and got his latest album Cold Roses, and I was just entranced by it, “Yes, oh YES.” All those shock of recognition sounds. And when I met and we played together, I thought, “This guy is really a kindred spirit.” His life is a jam, and he has opened up musically since then. It is wonderful to see how that’s all developed. I’m a big Ryan Adams fan.
MG- Speaking of unlikely collaborations, your agent Jonathan Levine played drums with Phil & Friends recently.
PL- Yeah, I guess back in the day he was a Grateful Dead cover band. We had jammed a little bit before causally, like on Thanksgiving. This was really a great trip. We rocked.
MG- So suits can rock?
PL- Usually, suits were rocking before they were suits, especially Deadheads [laughter].
MG- Of all the members of the current Phil & Friends lineup, keyboardist Steve Molitz comes from the most musically removed world. How did you initial find him?
PL- It is funny because I’m always on the lookout for something different, something that might fit into the Grateful Dead musical world. I’ve been listening to a lot of electronica and was looking to find someone who can bring some of that into our music. Some people had mentioned Jackie Greene to me before I heard him and someone mentioned Particle to me as well, so when they came into town I saw them. They were an electronica jamband—-no vocals—-and I loved it. So I talked with Steve and he loves to sit in with as many musicians as he can. And he had a lot of knowledge of the roots and the regular styles usually associated with our music, and he has this totally other world that rears its head. It is almost like awaking the dragon.
MG- Who are some other electronica acts you were listening to?
PL- I was just listening to people like Amon Tobin and Paul Oakenfold. The mix DJs aren’t as cool as the guys who do it from scratch. Some sample stuff is amazing, like those Chuck Close paintings where each cell in the paintings is another painting.
I’m always looking for fresh meat.
MG- When the original quintet split up, you mentioned that you wanted to keep your band in flux, but this incarnation of Phil & Friends has already been together since the summer of 2007. Do you plan to tour with these four musicians for the foreseeable future, or are you planning to change things up sometime soon?
PL- I never know. It’s a little bit of both. You put the energy into getting a group together, and you want take it as far as it will go. And I don’t think we’ve reached the limits, so I want keep it together. But, with that being said, we are always having people sit in. For instance, we are having Barry Sless sit in with us in New York.
MG- One thing that separates this group from previous versions of your solo band is that you have reached back to perform the more country and roots-rock oriented material often associated with The Dead’s Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty period. I assume it was Larry Campbell who urged you to revisit those songs?
PL- It’s a combo of Larry, who is master of that and Jackie. He isn’t far behind him in his love and knowledge of the Americana things. So yeah, that’s the basic stance of the band. So we are still trying to retain/continue the quest for the magic of something we can make as musicians from scratch.
MG- It’s been a real treat to hear the early songs like “Till The Morning Comes.”
PL- I think Jerry always felt that some of those songs sounded better on the albums. It was a different time, a different planetthings do come back around but not exactly.
MG- I know you were familiar with Larry and his work with Bob Dylan, but when did you first talk to him about joining your band?
PL- At that same Jammys. Our paths had crossed because my band and Dylan’s band had played tours together, so we knew each other and would say hi. So at the Jammys we talked a little bit. And then he left Bob’s band and I was like, “Here is this walking legend who knows all this stuff and who knows this weird America.” He was saying he left Bob because well, I don’t know. He didn’t feel like he could play, he wasn’t allowed to wellI don’t know. And I told him you can come with me and play what you want to play, man. And yeah, it was a fortuitous event, those Jammys
We also did a stripped down acoustic set at Bonnaroo. That was just a logical extension. We have Larry and Jackie and Theresa Williams who is singing with us and thought, “Why don’t we also do an acoustic set?”
MG- You also recently played a series of shows with the Allman Brothers Band. I think some fans were a bit surprised by the lack of collaborations. Were you able to hang out with Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks or Jaimoe?
PL- I just had breakfast with Marc Quis. But, no I haven’t because of the schedule. I have to really take care of myself on the road. Eat right, sleep, avoid stress. It is just possible if I really concentrate, and I have a really tight schedule. I haven’t really been at the venue or in proximity at the same time as those guys. Of course, I just talked to Derek on the phone and will be playing with Warren Haynes at State College, so I’ll see those guys real soon.
MG- Have you even thought of bringing this band into the studio and making another Phil & Friends record?
PL- You know, we did that back in 02 with the Quintet, and we made what we thought was a good record, but it ended up being too pop I wish it was a little less slick. At the same time, the idea of making a record, even then, wasn’t that compelling to me.
It still was really great writing the songs for that. It probably would be fun. But with the industry today I’m not sure I need to do that. I don’t have a career to build. I guess the bottom line would be if it turned out in the future that we have enough new material to warrant that, then yes.
MG- Speaking of the music industry in general have you ever thought about hosting your own festival?
PL- I really don’t want to be a promoter, it’s much more work than you think.
MG- John Bell said the same thing to me once. He equated it to the difference between renting and owning a tour bus. Owning the bus just gives you much more of a headache.
PL- Yeah, much more. You get to enjoy the musical artistic payoff instead of just collapsing with exhaustion.
MG- Well, to close things where we started, can you talk about how you write a setlist? I’ve always heard that each of your shows has a specific theme or story.
PL- The theme is often nothing you can pin down, sometimes it is just a feeling. Or this show is outside in the afternoon, so we want everyone to dance around and have a good time. Basically the goal is to create some kind of arc with the show itself. Whether it is a two hour set, two longer sets or a four hour show, it wants to have a progression to it. A beginning, middle, end and a dramatic arc or an intensity, tension/release kind of thing. It wants to tell a story. Stories can be very abstract or very concrete. Sometimes the lyrics will tell a story from the point of view, maybe more than one person. So we try to construct each set that way or sometimes the entire evening that way. We have such a great variety that it’s possible to string it all together. I want to break up the old Grateful Dead sequences and shuffle the pieces.
MG- Can you close by telling us a specific storyline you particularly enjoyed crafting?
PL- I’m like Sarah Palin, man. I can’t remember, there have been so many [laughter]. Actually, I will. There were some shows we did in December of 2004 [12/17-19] in a band with Chris Robinson and the members of Railroad Earth. We had 11 players onstage, and we did a three act drama over three days and the theme was degeneration, death and rebirth. The only hint was that were tarot cards on the poster that said, “Act One, Two and Three.” If someone out there gets the theme than it its successful and people did get this. And we also learned that people are looking, and they want those extra clues in there so they could look for a theme. And we discovered they wanted that. That was revolutionary.