Phil Lesh and Friends, Orpheum Theater, Boston- 11/21
Phil Lesh and Friends returned to the Boston Orpheum last week and kicked off their three night stand with a solid, and at times inspiring performance. They chose to leap into a spirited "Cold, Rain and Snow" rather than their usual improvisational segment to kick off the performance, and I found myself immediately seduced by Jimmy Herring's brilliant lead guitar. Warren Haynes stepped up with a stirring lead of his own after Phil Lesh sang the first verse. Warren first coaxed moans out of his guitar with achingly held single notes, and then skillfully wound the music over to another Herring lead, during which Lesh and keyboardist Rob Barraco stepped up and helped to propel the band to a burst of instrumental energy. The second guitar break started with references to Garcia’s familiar lead, but then developed into a distinctly Southern groove. I had not seen the band since August, but less than ten minutes into the show I was already "re-amazed" at the incredible chemistry that these five musicians have developed in just over a year of performance as a unit. Later in the song, Haynes quarterbacked the band through a section that developed from a whisper to a pounding climax. The band moved "CR&S" into the Blues For Allah instrumental chestnut "King Solomon's Marbles," which they performed with impressive precision. This song is for the hardcore Deadheads, as it is an intriguing composition, which The Dead rarely performed.
Haynes was soulfully commanding on arguably the most moving Garcia tribute song written to date, his "Patchwork Quilt," and Barraco handled the vocals for an uneven "Here Comes Sunshine," but the conclusion of the first set held some of the evening's most tantalizing moments. "HCS" unfolded into a jam that moved effortlessly from tasty jazzy explorations into the Derek and The Dominos classic "Keep On Growin'." The band delivered the strongest version of this that I have ever heard from them, with aggressive playing and some strong vocals from Barraco, Haynes and Lesh. After Lesh delivered a subtle cue with a familiar flurry of bass notes during the instrumental before the last lyric of "Growin'," Herring took charge with a stupendous, organized frenzy of lead guitar leading the band into "Uncle John's Band." Haynes would later guide the band back toward the end of "Keep On Growin'," in very crafty fashion.
The second set did begin with improvisation, which gave way to Robert Hunter's most recent burst of lyrical magnificence, "Celebration." This song is shamelessly uplifting with lyrics that speak to the need to appreciate life, and all that is yet to come for those willing to embrace joy. At one point, Jimmy Herring buoyed the positive lyrical energy with his shining lead guitar, displaying once again his stunning ability to simultaneously deliver warmth and edge. Barraco and Haynes each would step up and throw some of their paint on the Herring canvass, as Jimmy deftly worked their inputs into his mind-blowing expression. It is always nice when Phil gives the good ol' Allman Brothers Band a nod, and Warren's vocals, not to mention his aggressive rhythm guitar behind Herring's first lead cut right through to the soul of "Blue Sky." Haynes took a lead of his own later in the song, and those in attendance were treated to Haynes’ high comfort level with this song. Haynes performed this song with its writer (Dickey Betts) many times during his original eight-year stint as a member of the legendary Southern blues-rock outfit
I have never been disappointed by a Rob Barraco-fronted "Crazy Fingers." He sings this song with striking reverence, and he liberally references familiar Garcia guitar parts on his keyboard. Tonight the song had a particularly fresh feel that blended beautifully with the familiar anchor of Lesh's fluid bass lines. A visibly pregnant Susan Tedeschi joined the band for a "Lovelight" that turned out to be a real ass-shaker. Susan has been away from the stage recently, and she let out a bunch of pent up energy with a lively, outstanding lead vocal. Warren's took a verse himself, which culminated with a call and response exchange with Susan (they also flashed each other more than a few smiles) as this version of "Lovelight" crackled like a late December New England fireplace. The pulsating light show projected on a screen behind the band at first echoed the playful energy, and later even seemed to add to it. During one section, the colors on the backdrop began to undulate, and as Molo and Lesh locked into a tight groove, the pulsating increased.
"Mason's Children" was stronger than the versions I caught last summer, but I still hold the opinion that this band is too cautious with this song. I think if they got a li'l "ruder" with this song, they could approach the frenetic energy of some of the fun Grateful Dead versions. This gave way to a brief, spacey jam, with John Molo lending some funky beats and other creative inputs to the musical stew. "Sugaree" arose from the ashes, and although Warren always delivers with this song, this version paled compared to other recent P+F "Sugaree" excursions. Some of these have been downright ferocious versions, so even a strong, set closing offering (like this night’s) can leave one feeling incomplete. Perhaps Warren laid back thinking that the show would end with "In The Midnight Hour," which I was told was listed on the band’s set list to follow "Sugaree" and close the set.
Phil put his now-traditional stamp on the show by talking to the crowd before the encore. He spoke of the importance of saving people's lives, whether by signing up to be an organ donor, or by giving blood. He quipped that by donating blood you can save a life, "without even having to die." The encore of "Not Fade Away" was very enjoyable, but it is not one of this unit’s stronger numbers.
I was stunned when many folks that have been seeing repeated shows on this tour seemed to feel that this was an off night. This only served to tell me that the band has reached a level that even their weaker shows are pretty darn impressive. I don’t have any more Phil and Friends shows on my personal itinerary, but I am one of many folks who hope this same incarnation of the band chooses to tour the sweet, sunny south in April or May of 2001.