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Published: 2001/07/23
by Jesse Jarnow

Phil Lesh and Friends/Ratdog/The Disco Biscuits, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 7/22

UNDER THE ROLL-TOP: What’s The Use?

There is something about the Saratoga Performing Arts Center that is
grounded deeply the past. Perhaps it is the simple charm of its
non-corporate name. Perhaps it is the neatly planted sky-high trees that
line the road through dense forest that one must pass through to get to the
lot. Perhaps it is the grounds of the natural spa, the spring, and the
campus arrangement of buildings and facilities on the lawn behind the
concession stands. There are places where one imagines dapper young
gentlemen strolling through the shade arm-in-arm with ladies in the same
spots where heads now laze — like a modern scene super-imposed on perfectly
reconstructed ruins.

Age is an interesting issue in the Grateful Dead scene. Most rock
sociologists tend to believe that the process of identifying with specific
music is a product of the listener's age, his exact time and place in
culture. It is that identity – separate from other generations – that makes
his music special for him. This seems to be mostly bunk when it comes to the
music that has derived from the Grateful Dead scene.

Regardless of its musical content, the work of musicians like Phil Lesh and
Bob Weir is still important in the sense that people still use it for
something. While for some, this use might clearly be no more than nostalgia,
it is perfectly alive and current for others, the same folks who see
multiple Phil Lesh shows on the same "tour" as they might see multiple
String Cheese Incident shows. The use of the music seems no more a
transcendence than any other kind of rock music, really, but the fact that
it – as a form – has survived with the same basic tenets for as long as it
has seems to indicate that what it is attempting to transgress is more
involved than the usual bummers of life.

In practice, this often just sounds like wanking, of course, but sometimes
that's the price you gotta pay. Just as the idea of transcendence has played
a pivotal role in society for eons, so has masturbation. Neither will go
away, nor should they. And since self-pleasure and self-transcendence are
often unquantifable experiences, it might be for the best if we just
accepted the vaselined line between the two once and for all.

The Disco Biscuits opened the show. They were the reason that we chose to
attend the Saratoga show over any of the other gigs in the immediate
northeast. Traffic at the Tappan Zee Bridge waylaid us and we arrived midway
through the band's one hour set, getting to the lawn as they were starting
Helicopters. It was disconcerting seeing all of our friends down
front with a sea of 60 empty rows between them, the band, and us.
Helicopters moved out quickly, compact and a nearly perfect
abbreviation of what they are capable of. The same couldn't be said for the
rest of the set, unfortunately, which contained a confused, though
interesting, Jigsaw Earth and a regrettably Harry Hood-like
Home Again.

Bob Weir took the stage with Ratdog looking and sounding very much like an
animatronic caricature of the musician he once was. Perhaps that's a harsh
assessment, but the band's sound seemed somehow slimmed down into a lite
blues revue. A lot of this seemed to be caused by the prominent place of
Kenny Brooks's saxophone, which added an unbearable smoothness to the
texture.

Thankfully, the music got darker and more jagged as the set progressed, but
often couldn't seem to find the momentum it needed to be interesting. The
relatively new songs from "Evening Moods" (as well as some of his Dead
covers) seemed to slip in and out of the same expressionless sea of airy
music. To his credit, it's an identifiable sound, extending and cohesively
expanding on elements of the 1990s Grateful Dead, but still actively
unexciting.

The previous two times I saw Phil Lesh and Friends, I wrote the band off as
irrelevant, mostly due to the playing of Paul Barrare and Bill Payne of
Little Feat, who simultaneously seemed utterly out of place in the show but
played so aggressively as to gain control of it The name "Phil and Friends"
carried with it a negative stigma since the departure Steve Kimock in
October of 1999. Thankfully, I was happily impressed by this lineup of the
band. And, at this point, they are a band. Phil seems to have found an
amiable crew of jamband sessioners — those who bounce from project to
project but can still afford to commit to Phil and Friends when needed. They
have a very real connection and chemistry.

I've never been a fan of Warren Haynes. I've always recognized him as a fine
guitar player, but his style never struck me as particularly original
before, let alone his voice. And while he occasionally strayed into an
uncannily good (and, thus, uncannily annoying) approximation of Brent
Mydland's, er, impassioned growl, he also revealed a sweet, thoughtful
delivery when he wasn't affecting a down 'n dirty blues persona. His
playing, similarly, was wonderful when outside the confines of typical blues
progressions. He, Phil, and Jimmy Herring locked together in a marvelous
way.

The band's improvisation was unrelentlessly intelligent, with musicians
listening carefully to each other. Drummer John Molo reacted responsively
and aggressively and seemed to the band member most in control of the jams
directions. In places, the band could've used an extra kick or three to get
them moving. By midway through the band's second set, the group could have
used some more focus, as they worked their way through a set-closing
sequence of Mason’s Children > The Wheel > The Other One > The Wheel >
Sugaree.

The songs had their moments, for sure, but seemed more constructed than
spontaneous — particularly the segues. They all had their uses, though.
Mason’s Children, for example, was a mind-blower for the head who had
seen shows all through the 1980s and 1990s with no hopes of ever hearing it,
providing him with a connection to the unassailably special music the
Grateful Dead made in 1970. The Other One had been played by Weir
earlier in the evening, though he only sang the first verse. Lesh seemed to
want to complete the song. It looked like he even sang the second verse into
his vocal mic, though no sound came out. In any event, along with Weir's
guest appearance in the first set, this reference seemed to be a reassurance
that things are alright in Deadland.

The language of the Grateful Dead has existed for 35 years. People speak
through it and with it. The way it means has long since been established.
The problem, at this point, seems to be the fact that where the Grateful
Dead's music once challenged people's uses, it now seems only to reaffirm
them. While this is important sociologically, it is not always interesting
musically.

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