Phil Lesh Quintet, Irving Plaza, NYC- 5/21
Early Set: Celebration > 1000 Stars, Real Thing, St. Stephen > Eleven > Again and Again, Mason’s Children E: Liberty
Late Set: Jam > Patch Work Quilt, Viola Lee Blues > Jam > Midnight Train > Viola Lee Blues >. Rock n Roll Blues > Welcome to the Underground > Viola Lee Blues, No More Do I > Leave Me Out of This > Love Light E: Passenger
Let a Fresh Wind Tear Through Your Soul: The Early Set
Exactly one block east of Union Square a minor circus had set up. New York considers Phil one its own, considers itself a second home, and while regular multi-night stands by the Quintet generally take shape without many of the trappings of the scene, there was something special about the surprise CD release party. There were T-shirt vendors and ratty looking wookies; there were long lines and a hell of a lot of index fingers pointing to heaven; there was Mike Gordon, shyly muttering, "Hey"; there were even balloons (!). The early set was indeed something of a rarity. Irving Plaza fits 1200, and 300 of those tickets were given out by the Virgin store where Phil did a CD signing. Couple that with an equal number of tickets distributed to the recording industry, and you’ve got a very limited number of tickets for the public. But make no mistake; the crowd was enthusiastic- electric even.
The Quintet took the stage right on time and predictably opened with Celebration. I was immediately struck, literally struck (it hit me in the gut and then slapped me about the head) by the sound of Phil’s bass. The new soundman has an incredible mix that has the bass nice and loud, but also very sharp and clean. He’s also equalized Warren a bit so everyone is on a level field, which makes for some fine listening. If there is one thing to talk about, it’s just how good the new mix is. During Warren’s slide solo, Phil was right there next to every note- not rising up from below or shaping a foundation, but right there, mixing it up.
A crashy Molo transition led to 1000 Stars. I was actually a little surprised at the placement. Of course it would be in the early set, but it’s commonly a closer. It worked well here, inflating the energy and offering some raucous guitar work. In particular the way Jimmy and Warren laced their threads in the end jam brought smiles to the crowd. The third new(er) tune, Real Thing, put Warren in front again. Molo gave it an up-tempo swing with cymbals and high hats, while Rob speckled the composition with piano accents. It was a nice version with strong vocals- not as Bob Seger-ish as the version on There and Back Again.
The St. Stephen was also expected, but the crowd greeted it warmly, happy to hear a classic. Jimmy’s leads were outrageous throughout the Stephen > 11 jam- like a lightning storm with bolts flying from everywhere at once. The licks just before the final verse brought a sunshiney glow to his face. The exiting jam became a little messy, but it calmed and settled under Herrings guidance, eventually giving way to The Eleven. Phil signaled and Molo dropped right into the rhythmic arrangement- essentially a splice transition. Rob’s vocals were clear and emphatic, touching off a torrent of sound. Dancing piano droplets and wavering leads from Warren decorated the scene. The energy built quickly, as though the band knew it was under the clock and was trying to cram as much music as possible into the hour long set. A crazy wa solo lit the fuse and the whole thing blew up. The wreckage fell to the ground in the form of Again and Again. This one is easily the strangest new song, with its layered vocals and intricate composition. It was played with attention to detail, rather than exploration- sheet music all around.
A barn burning Mason’s replete with slide guitar and big drums closed the set. After the intros, the group treated the room to one more tune: a loose, shaking version of Liberty. I’ve said it before, but Garcia loved this tune so much, its one of the few times when I fall to reminiscing during a PLQ show. Brings a smile to my face every time.
Somewhere on the Other Side: The Late Set
The Quintet is not often a band that disappoints, and for the late set the five-some delivered just what people expected: a more free form performance, littered with material from the new disc, but also replete with extended jams and murky back passages. Just after 11 PM a loose tuning solidified, and the lights went down. A forward-looking, heavy groove, the jam was great traveling music. The orchestration created a churning movement, a couple lines from Jimmy shining brightly. Rob switched to the organ as the progress slowed and settled into an intricately rendered glade. The playing was so tight here, it could have a composed segment- fantastic. The following Patchwork Quilt was made all the better by the journey to it.
The potency of Phil’s bass as it opened up Viola Lee Blues was again astounding. The room burst to life, twelve hundred people simultaneously defibrillated. As is often the case with Viola Lee, the group hit the verse and was off. A collection of crazed bass, bells and blocks initiated the jam, Warren quickly following suit with a fine wa solo. The jam continued to stretch, reaching a fantastic jamlet with Rob, Phil and Jimmy ganging up to crush the groove. A shift in gears had Rob move back to the piano while Phil and Molo locked onto an idea and drove it home. This separate jam was reminiscent of the opening exploration, but had greater focus and an even heavier weight. It bled flawlessly into Midnight Train- one of the best transitions of the night. Rob had a nice solo in the middle of the tune, but it was Warren’s weird, fragile solo leaving the tune that caught my ear. It was oddly delicate, almost tentative, and it fell away imperceptibly as Haynes skidded back to Viola Lee, he and Phil grinding out the tag.
After a few minutes, Phil picked a line and declared the end of the exiting jam. A short section that lacked focus hinted at Truckin’, but there was no obvious tease. It stopped as abruptly as it started and fell into a lazy Rock n Roll Blues. Another short transition, this one pleasingly spaced out, gave way to a sparse Welcome to the Underground. Again, everyone had the sheet music out and the song was played without much embellishment. Still, it is an interesting tune as its aggression differs from the rest of the Quintet’s repertoire. Some fine organ work carried out the song and pushed the ensemble toward a big blister jam that swelled and stretched before exploding back into the last verse of Viola Lee Blues. This was the nicest suite of the night.
Between songs a "Let Jimmy sing!" chant went up. Herring turned around laughing, trying to ignore the crowd’s jeers. Phil took his mic and knowingly joked about how it was Jimmy’s turn now. "Your fate is sealed. They will make you sing sooner or later."
The final suite opened with No More Do I, a personal favorite from this batch of tunes. There is an energy to it that hits me just right. (Check out Just a Little Light > No More Do I from the last Beacon run for one of the best song-pairings ever.) This one had some super tight Warren/Jimmy trades going on, as well as a neat, but short locomotion jam leading to Leave Me Out of This. The Barraco/Mattson composition has the feel of so much of the Tricksters material: bright and energetic. Rob and Jimmy were playing off each other as the rocker charged to a close, eventually easing to a void where Phil single handedly created Love Light. Warren’s vocals were as expressive as ever, sending chills down my spine. Rob played an organ line that upped the energy, and the jam took off. But before long the music found its way into a great spacey area. The scope of the song expanded in an airy, mellow movement that made this a very different, very interesting Love Light- probably the best single song of the night.