Phil Lesh & Friends, Beacon Theater, NYC- 11/30
Phil Lesh & Friends rocked the Beacon on Friday the 30th with a set that introduced the new, re-imagined the familiar, and paid tribute to a departed friend. Anticipation was high as the Beacon opened its doors to the fans waiting out on Broadway. The world had just learned that morning of George Harrison's passing, and the lines were rife with speculation as to what form the P & F's tribute may take. The opener was a sentimental favorite, Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away". Though the song's words struck a clear note, evoking the spiritual side of Harrison, the actual performance was somewhat middling. Extensive jamming can work in a first set, but only if it's purposeful and tight. The noodling was just a little too heavy for a show opener. As they came out of "Not Fade Away", however, they began to tinker with the opening melody of an old Smokey Robinson & The Miracles tune. It seemed so slow at first, one may have assumed they were just noodling some more before deciding on what Dead song they would go into. Yet the melody built strength, and soon the band was indeed going full steam ahead into their first performance of "Tears of a Clown". Prior to the show, it would have been hard to imagine this song without Robinson's signature falsetto. Yet Warren Haynes's soulful Carolina growl sounded tailor made for the tune, and he, Lesh, and Jimmy Herring played the normally horn driven lead with aplomb. A vocally powerful "Black Peter" descended into a landslide of a Space, with Lesh, Haynes, and Herring dropping some magnificent bombs. Another nod to Harrison came in the form of "Dear Mr. Fantasy". "You are the one who can make us all laugh", they sang, "but doing that, you break out in tears." The imagery wasn't lost on fans of the ex-Beatle, whose memories of that band were decidedly un-rosy. Some more thunderous Space followed, as well as a brief "Eleven" tease, before the band went into "Midnight Train". Rob Barraco really shone on this one, displaying some creative flourishes on piano. The set closed with a magnificent "Fire On The Mountain" played in the upbeat reggae tempo it has always worked best in.
The Friends re-emerged after about twenty minutes, breaking into a swinging jam led by John Molo and Rob Barraco. This segued into "No More Do I", a stunner of a new song that was both tight and engaging. Let’s here more of these Phil, please! "Eyes of the World" began with a stutter before morphing into a satisfying, if not monumental, interpretation. By contrast, the "Unbroken Chain" that followed was epic. Haynes’s lead guitar lent the song an almost Zeppelin-esque feel, before Barraco slid the song into lounge mode. After so many years gathering dust on the Dead’s shelf, this song has truly expanded and matured in the hands of Lesh and his Friends. It was arguably the highlight of the evening, though some may suggest that distinction belongs to the segment that followed.
"Dark Star" was another obvious allusion to the so-called "Quiet Beatle". Not even Jerry Garcia, in his later years, could match the vocal command he possessed on this song from 1968 to 1972. Whatever Lesh lacked in vocals, however, he more than made up for in playing. His was a bass both stately and majestic, around whose lines Herring, Haynes and Barraco wove a hypnotic tapestry of sound. After one verse, and a very fluid jam, Barraco began to tickle the opening notes of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". This elicited a thunderous roar from the crowd, many of whom had been mourning the song’s author at Strawberry Fields just hours earlier. Haynes took control of this one from the start, belting the lament with sincere anguish while trading stunning licks with Herring on guitar. The band even teased the opening notes of "Something" before going back into the melody of "Dark Star." This eventually evolved into a thunderous "The Eleven". More cheers came up from the crowd and the Friends delivered a terrific version. (although this once unheard gem risks suffering from "El Paso syndrome" if performed too much.) They eventually slowed down and went back into a stellar second verse of "Dark Star", before closing the set with a vocally transcendent "Cosmic Charlie".
Lesh & Co. came out for an encore of "Box of Rain", performed in an ear-pleasing rearrangement. Approaching his old repertoire from a new standpoint is a smart way for Lesh to keep the audience engaged without turning his band into a glorified cover act. Still, it's the new songs that hold the most promise, and one hopes to hear more of these in the future. Overall, tonight's performance was a terrific way make an audience happy on a sad day while paying homage to a cultural icon now left to the ages.