Live at the Warfield – Phil Lesh and Friends
Relix Records/Image Entertainment
[full disclosure: JamBands.com is published by Relix Records' parent company, Zenbu Media]
The first thing one should know is that the release of the latest CD under the Phil Lesh and Friends moniker is mostly arbitrary. But if one was even considering purchasing a live disc by the former Grateful Dead bassist, she probably knew that, anyway. Drawn from multiple nights in Lesh's native San Francisco, some of the cuts made it to CD. Others made it to the DVD release. There is no overlap. Like all of Lesh's Friends acts, the players here — including perennial keyboardist Rob Barraco and drummer John Molo, along with saxophonist Greg Osby, and fusion-dude John Scofield and former Dylan-mate Larry Campbell on guitars — are as world class as they are casual.
In a slow-motion "Scarlet Begonias," Lesh repurposing the melody with a surprisingly pleasant Pink Floyd-like lilt, Campbell and Scofield find beautiful new harmonies as they sloppily circumnavigate the main riff. Each contributes crisply, the recording precise and clear as one could hope for. Often, though, as in the ensuing jam, the guitarists are more content to trade short figures than to build longer forms within the improvisation. As a result, many of the jams feel like they are always just about to get going. Still, the conversation is always interesting, even if one gets the sense that neither is reaching much. As the jam meanders into the up-tempo R & B of "They Love Each Other," the two fall purposefully into a pair of brightly entwined lines.
This is a frequent tactic: the Allman build. They employ it again, to even better effect, during the melted protoplasm the emerges from "The Wheel." There, they begin with abstract conversation, Osby contributing too, slip into the Allmans thing, and burst out the other side in a peppy jam that drops into "Dark Star" (itself cued by Osby trading lines with Scofield's backwards-masked shredding). Despite their enormously expressive range, it can sometimes be hard to get a saxophone to work in the context of a rock band, short of blowing really free.
Rather than settle for liteness, Osby nestles frequently into the background, a non-presence, his lines more textural than anything. Barraco, too, is decidedly absent from the music's front end, an ambient part of the Dead sound. With Lesh playing obstinately lead bass, making Barraco the other half of the rhythm section is probably a sound strategy. Drummer John Molo is his usual invisibly brilliant self, effortlessly holding the numerous dialogues together with nimble tom-work that recalls Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann at his lone-drummer finest. Auxillary vocalist Joan Osborne even contributes some vocals in "Dark Star" that sound like a Theremin. In a good way, I mean. (Seriously.) The result is an ensemble that genuinely moves as a mass, for better or worse.
In between the jams, the septet plays some songs, too. Lesh sings a few Dead numbers, including "Box of Rain" and "Pride of Cucamonga," and they're better than one might expect, even if they're not gonna supplant the originals. In isolated moments, such as the entrance to "The Other One" — Campbell on psychedelic fiddle, Osby blowing cubist phrases — the music is strictly brilliant. In other isolated moments — such as when Lesh begins singing his Dylan-like restatement of "The Other One" a few minutes later — the music is strictly comical, and one can make all the jokes he wants about fucking/beating/coddling a dead horse/meme/genre/anything and probably get away with them. But then they're jamming again, Lesh goading new sheets of noise from his cronies, and it's still not great, but one can see how it could become so at any moment.