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Published: 2001/07/26
by Dan Alford

Phil Lesh Quintet, Ratdog and the Disco Biscuits- Hartford Meadows 7/21

The Disco Biscuits:
Svenghali, The Tunnel, Crickets, Sly, Hot Air Balloon

Ratdog:
Odessa, Eternity, Looks Like Rain, Shakedown Street, Minglewood, Mission, West LA Fadeaway, Saturday night
> Scarlet > Aiko > Bass > 2 Djinn, China Cat > I Know You Rider

Phil Lesh Quintet
I: Jam > Cosmic Charlie, Truckin’* > Jam* > Cassidy*, Beautifully Broken > Marbles > Stronger Than Dirt, Doin’ That Rag
II: Caution Jam > Dear Mr. Fantasy > Jam > St. Stephen
> Eyes > St. Stephen, Help > Slip > 11 > Slip > Franklin’s
E: Built to Last

During the setbreak between Ratdog and Phil’s quintet, I chatted briefly with Marc Brownstein (the Disco
Biscuits’ bassist). Many of the Bisco kids, he told
me, had missed the band’s opening set because of its
early spot (4 PM). True enough, the shed was sparsely
settled and the lawn was all but empty. Those who
made it in were gathered in two distinct clusters,
fueling off each other’s energy. However, despite the
poor slot and poor attendance, the goal was
accomplished. Brownie said that the band’s comfort
level with larger venues had grown, whether there were
no listeners or 9000 listeners (a la Red Rocks)- after
all, that’s where the band is headed.

Their set was solid, though not incredible. Appealing
to the older audience, the Biscuits played The Tunnel,
a newer, more relaxed tune, and closed with a finely
detailed Hot Air Balloon. Admittedly though, of all
the bands playing with Phil on the Summer Odyssey, the
Disco Biscuits are the worst sonic match.

By the time Ratdog took the stage the shed was filling
up quickly and a steady stream was heading to the
lawn. The ‘dog has really come together over the last
18 months or so. They are, as Bob is fond of saying
in interviews, a real band- a collective. They’ve got
band telepathy happening, as exhibited by this set.
Like the cogs and wheels of a musical machine, the
band members meshed with one another, keeping the unit
churning ever forward. Many who blindly dislike Bob
found themselves shaking their bones and digging the
jazzy grooves. By the end of the set, the venue was
packed and on its feet rocking to a nice China >
Rider.

Two hours earlier, however, the band opened with a
smooth, mellow, acoustic Odessa. Played slower than
usual, the actual length of the song became apparent.
Bob announced that Eternity was a collaboration with
the late, great Willie Dixon- but we all knew that.
Marc sat out the song, but Kenny joined, filling in
nicely as Bob switched to his old gray woody after a
broken string.

The full band came to the stage for a spirited Looks
Like Rain. Jeff’s bittersweet piano was an excellent
complement to the somber tone. The crowd welcomed the
old favorite with ample cheers and was equally excited
when the ensuing mellow funk slipped into Shakedown.
Bob and Marc were hitting the vibe dead on while Kenny
took an early solo. Brooks still needs to step out
more. The band is such that it will move with him; he
needn’t be concerned with stepping on anyone’s toes.

After poking around for a bit, Marc let loose a wild
screeching solo that came somewhere near a human voice
before dripping into a cool little full band
breakdown. A surprise highlight, Minglewood, waited
at the end of the Street. Jay’s big drums had this
one swinging immediately. Jeff took a rollicking line
that set a high bar early on, and the energy level
stayed constant, fueled in part by a rowdy solo from
Bob. A truly unexpected rendition, overall.

Mission was played clean, with short, lively solos all
around. It preceded a nasty West LA, a tune made for
Ratdog. Slinky, deep grooves laid the groundwork
while Kenny and Marc traded licks, and Bob and Rob
played counterpoint. The latter pairing was
particularly nice as it hearkened back to Scaring the
Children and Ratdog’s early shows in 1995.

The obligatory Saturday Night thankfully appeared
mid-set and gave way to an aggressive Scarlet- just
swollen with energy. The end jam rolled out with
everyone taking the opportunity to blow. The whole
band was on percussion for a neat intro to Aiko.
There were also fantastic vocal harmonies at the end,
another sign of the band’s cohesion.

The Jay and Rob segment was loud and incredible, as
usual. Working through Lovelight, Rob finished with a
stirring Star Spangled Banner. It gets ‘em every
time. Jay laid out the transition, a tight groove.
Jeff pounced on the idea for a nice bit of funky stuff
before Bob rounded up the troops for Two Djinn.
Probably the best of the Ratdog originals, this tune
is always a blast. There was more vocal harmonizing
and a hot tunnel jam in the middle. Jeff rode the
current and Marc burst out over him. To close, China
> Rider- a crowd pleaser and good way to end.

But the night had only just begun. The Quintet took
the stage just before eight and launched into a rock
jam, reminiscent of Bucket. Before long it wound down
into Cosmic Charlie. Molo crashed down on the song,
but there was really nothing special happening- just
nice, easy playing.

As expected, Bob took the stage next. His ability to
run with Jimmy and rest was incredibly impressive-
after all he’s somewhat notorious for awkward guest
spots. But here he was right in mix and willing to
plunge as deep as the rest. Truckin’ had a loose
intro, but a dense sound throughout. Little leads and
rhythm baubles decorated the soundscape. The jam
heated as Bob and Warren played off one another,
followed by Warren flying off on his own. As part of
"Grateful Dead Music as Repertoire" philosophy, hints
abounded but were noncommittal. The music melted and
dripped under Molo’s friction, but was pulled out by a
theme introduced by Bob and Phil. It was a great
surfacing jam that flowed easily into Cassidy.

Warren led the first half of the improvisation, while
Phil looked smiling to Bob. The second half dove
deep- very deep. Jimmy’s lightning noodles flashed in
the darkness.

A fluid, laid-back Beautifully Broken gave a brief
breath before wandering off. Warren shot in with an
Eleanor tease and Phil guided the band into a segment
that repeatedly hinted at The Eleven. Instead the
band plunged into a viscous King Solomon’s Marbles >
Stronger Than Dirt. So deft, so fine, this may be the
best recent addition to the band’s songbook. Too much
excitement to handle. The Rag that closed the set was
just about perfect.

Set two was, as Phil put it before the donor rap, "the
best so far". It was the hardest, most wild set I’ve
seen since Warren sat in with the Herring/Pevar
line-up. The energy was raw and everywhere.

A Caution Jam opened. As the leads cast about, Phil
and Molo kept spiking down the track. Even when
sounds floated out and threatened to derail, Phil
continually returned to Caution. A wild space was
unearthed as Jimmy rocked back and forth on his
strings and Warren wiggled out with strange sounds.
It gave way to a gorgeous moment before Warren dropped
an incendiary device that scorched the rest of the
set. That one powerful moment, when Warren bent over
and tore into Dear Mr. Fantasy, unleashed such intense
voltage that it lit up the band and audience alike.
By the end of Fantasy, Rob was hopping around with
such fury he might have easily bounced right off the
stage. The crowd was on fire- unreal.

As the music drifted out into the night, Phil played
poignant lines. Jimmy and Warren set in and the jam
was off again, more Caution lines popping up. But it
eased and began to dissipate before dropping into St.
Stephen. The band stumbled on a few lines during the
vocals, but the instrumentals were scorching. Phil
was visibly laughing as the energy formed into
brilliant colors and triumphant voices. Eventually
Molo switched the beat and the Quintet rolled into
Eyes. A faster version, it sent my body into
spasmodic ecstasy long before the first verse.
Rolling back out, Jimmy linked up with Rob for a
spectacular segment that effortlessly slid back into
Stephen.

Barely a pause and the audience was slammed with Help. A nice version- vibrant. Slipknot settled in with
awesome eruptions from Molo. Slicing through time and
space, the aural view focused on prehistoric times,
with chaos just a hair’s breadth away. A series of
pronounced Phil tremors shook the stage and led to a
bright spot. Like all themes in the hands of Phil and
his cohorts, it fell away to disjointed craziness.
And like all madness, it too was left behind, this
time in favor of a huge Eleven. This suite has become
one favored by Phil and Friends because it works so
well. The Eleven left as quickly as it came, and the
dinosaurs were back. A loud cacophony of geologic
sounds, grating and skips finally climaxed by forming
into the marbled end of Slipknot. Franklin’s was
short but concentrated all the energy of the set, like
a beacon.

I have no problem saying that the Phil Lesh Quintet is
the best band around. That doesn’t mean it has to be
your favorite act, but when the songbook, skill level
of each member, cohesion as a band, openness of
interpretation, consistency of performances night to
night, and the ability to tap into that ineffable vibe
are considered, no band is better than the
collaboration between Jimmy, John, Warren, Phil and
Rob.

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