Phil Lesh and Friends, Stabler Arena, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA- 11/17
Rarely do you realize you’re experiencing greatness while it’s happening. In the case of rock concerts, it often takes some time to gain perspective, trade opinions with friends, read newspaper and fan accounts or listen to the tapes. Saturday night at Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, PA, was the exception. From Jimmy Herring’s opening guitar lick, there was a feeling in the air that this wasn’t going to be just another Phil Lesh and Friends show.
Fast forward through a “dream setlist” — a split “Other One,” “Unbroken Chain,” and “Help/Slip!,” a few knowing nods to Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the anticipated meteor shower — and you’ll get the idea. After shredding through “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)” to end the second set, Lesh reemerged to give his organ donor speech. Now, Lesh usually has a spring in his step, a bit of a strut to his gait, but tonight, the man was DANCING. He was juking and jiving his way back on stage to the audience’s rhythmic clapping, pumping his fists, with a grin that can’t be put into words.
He knew what was up, and he was ecstatic. His bandmates knew it, too. And we knew it.
“I don’t know what you guys think, but I think something special happened here tonight,” he began.
That might be the understatement of the year. Some P&F shows have dream setlists, but it’s just a good show on paper. Some are song-oriented, but lack in improvisation. Others are jam-fests, but disappoint those that came to enjoy specific tunes. For some reasons — some are quantifiable and others are intangible —Saturday’s show contained all of the above key positive elements without taking away from other aspects. At the risk of being overzealous, it was the perfect P&F show.The quintet — Herring, Lesh (bass/vocals), Warren Haynes (guitar/vocals), Rob Barraco (keyboards/vocals) and John Molo (drums/percussion) took the stage nonchalantly and began to tune. Herring played the riff from “Born Free” — fitting, because on this night, the guitarist seemed to break loose from the shackles that sometimes keep his performances P&F performances understated — and the rest of the group fell into place. The jam progressed until Molo played the familiar snare drum march that begins Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” and Haynes took charge on slide guitar for a “Rainy Day” jam. It was a nod and a wink to PL&F buddy Dylan and his band, already well into their show a few miles down the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Philadelphia. It flowed expertly into another Dylan tribute, “All Along The Watchtower,” and again Haynes was in charge, singing and copping some Jimi Hendrix guitar licks.
The cover-fest continued, with Haynes leading the charge into The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The quintet’s reading of this piece is pure psychedelia, with Haynes ripping off mind-searing slide guitar squeals while Herring refused to be outdone, adding quick, fluid, jazzy runs.Up next was the first proper Dead tune of the night, a rocking “Passenger,” with Haynes still singing leads. At this point it was clear that this show was a lot more aggressive and “rock
and roll” than most. The sold-out crowd, to be sure, didn’t mind a bit. Herring was still prominent, playing a beautiful solo while Haynes added some heavy chords. “Eyes Of The World” was as bouncy as ever, and included some 1970-ish jazz guitar chording near the end. A new P&F original, “No More Do I,” followed and made its debut, and was a straight-ahead Gov’t Mule-style rocker. “Box Of Rain” ended the first set and added some much needed mellowness to this loud, intense set, and was the first tune of the night to feature Lesh’s constantly improving lead vocals.
The second set began with a bit of tuning before Lesh and company launched into another P&F original, “Night of 1000 Stars,” appropriate considering the meteor shower would be visible from the parking lot after the show. This tune’s chorus is pure, unadulterated rock and roll, complete with jubilant vocal harmonies and crunching guitar riffs.Next Lesh tried to count off the next tune, but because of the raucous fans, he had to give it a second stab. It was worth the wait. “Unbroken Chain,” as usual, was brilliant. Both guitarists added gorgeous, jazzy textures and Barraco played some tasty keyboard runs during the quieter parts. The bluesy guitar “outro” played by Haynes continues to be one of the most effective new twists this band has put on old material. Again, it’s pure rock and roll. If you came to see note-for-note reproductions of Dead shows, you came to the wrong place. If you came to see one of the tightest, most talented, entertaining bands in the business, you were in luck. “Chain” began to dissipate, and Lesh pounded out a bass line that resembled the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out.” Then, Lesh dropped a bomb — one of those bellowing bass notes that literally rings in your chest — but not just any bomb. One of the most recognizable solitary notes in the Dead canon, the opening to “The Other One,” was greeted with ecstatic cheers, and immediately made a great show exponentially better. Probably the most intense part of the show, Lesh sang the first verse before he slowed it down considerably with a swing-style bass line. Some Allmans-esque guitar dueling ensued, with Herring and Haynes playing the roles of two Western gunslingers. After some prominent “Uncle John’s Band” teases, we heard the opening strains of “The Wheel,” and the show that seemed to reach its high point during every song just kept on getting better. After the first verse, “Wheel” slowed down a bit before Lesh dropped some more bombs and a pretty, mellow, yet brief Phish-like jam started. That was short-lived. We knew “The Other One” would be back, and it again reared its mighty head, this time for the second verse. Molo performed a playful high-hat vamp before the “Comin’ around” chorus segment, and the four notes that start “Help On The Way” charged the crowd even more. This was almost too much to handle in one night. Barraco handled the lead vocals with aplomb, and Molo added some high-energy drum fills during “Slipknot!” It was quite a treat to see Molo, the consummate ensemble player, get the chance to show off a bit. If that wasn’t enough, “Golden Road” wrapped up the second set, utilizing a rare four-part harmony, with Molo adding vocals. Another pure rock moment, it was also pure joy, as the tune increased its intensity until finally and mercifully coming to a close.
The encore, after Lesh’s jubilant speech, could’ve been anticlimactic, but “Franklin’s Tower,” with Lesh singing the lead, and a pretty gospel-tinged “We Bid You Goodnight” were a fitting end.
To borrow an ESPN sports term, this show was an Instant Classic — one of those events that doesn’t need time to grow in importance. If you were there, you don’t need me to tell you. If you get the tapes, you’ll have an idea. This show kept getting progressively better as the night wore on, with the crowd feeding off the musicians, and vice versa. As Lesh said during his talk, the audience “closed the circuit.” Saturday’s show was a microcosm of the quintet: The show kept getting incomprehensibly better, and so does Phil Lesh and Friends. PL&F continue to push the boundaries of rock and roll, and we should consider ourselves fortunate to be part of the synergy that creates such timeless moments as Nov. 17, 2001.