Phil Lesh & Friends, Greek Theatre, Berkeley, CA- 5/31
Sitting on the warm stone steps of the Greek Theatre, I had a wonderfully geekish moment where I was reading the new issue of Relix magazine with Phil Lesh’s smiling face on the cover while waiting for the show to begin. A woman a few steps below saw me holding the magazine and grinned. Hard to get too much Phil if you ask me.
The open air space was maybe half full even by showtime and those that had come were the converted, the faithful, the dancers ready for a tune to lift their heels. Maybe Saturday would be fuller or maybe many were waiting for Frost Amphitheatre on Sunday to once again hear Grateful Dead music on the Stanford University campus for the first time since 1987. It made for a loose, easy feeling in the crowd; everyone cheered by the smiling faces & pleasant smells in the air & the knowledge that for many the working week had reached an end. Phil, Rob Barraco and John Molo all wandered out to casually get their gear in order before the show. The line between performers and audience is always hazy when Phil & Friends come to town and this was never more evident than on this California near-Summer eve.
With the sun still over the horizon, the quintet stepped out after a lengthy, animated huddle behind the amps and broke into a rocking jam that instantly brought to mind the southern rock-jazz fusion of the Allman Brothers. As a friend pointed out about this current tour, the jams seem more focused, more ready to take the audience along with them on these tangents. From the get go I’ve admired the spirit behind this band’s jams. The way they bring the squonk of Albert Ayler & other ’60s free jazz players to the world of rock improv creates a kind of free falling boogie. But I’ve sometimes felt on the outside of what it was the group was exploring. Not so this night. Every jam took me to new places or let me experience old musical spots with fresh ears. For lack of a better term, there’s an organic quality the jamming has taken on that’s made it all the stronger. The distinctive flavor of a Phil & Friends jam makes one want to name them, to chronicle the progression of a certain musical theme from show to show, tour to tour, to capture some part of an ephemeral moment.
The first actual song of the night was a dead-on take of The Band’s Acadian Driftwood that flowed into a roaring double time assault on Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, which in turn spilled into a And We Bid You Goodnight tease and the heavenly Angel Band where the band got to show off their tight, earthy harmonies. If this all comes across as a bit breathless that’s as it should be. This was one of those nights where the band would play outside themselves from the first few notes, channeling the music for hours on end and then hugging each other in surprise when they came to a stop near 11 pm.
They continued to mix it up in the first set, bringing in songs that usually only show up in the encore slot (GDTR and Box of Rain) and teasing other tunes that wouldn’t surface that night (Dark Star kept cropping up during jams). They closed out the set with Viola Lee Blues done as a single piece rather than split up with songs in the middle of it. Jimmy Herring really shined on the jam into Viola Lee and on his solos within the tune. He often lays back and drops little poetic accents to pieces but tonight he had a lot to say through his guitar. It was a real joy to watch him as the notes flowed from him in heady rushes. Also great on this one was Rob Barraco who laid down some ghostly organ work that gave me a happy shiver. This tune always brings out the best in the quintet and tonight was no exception. As the house lights came up the faces around me seemed to say, “What a weird, wonderful set. Where the hell are we gonna go next ?”
A short set break let us rehydrate and rest our legs. It was a lively group at the Greek with nearly everyone on their feet for most of the concert. Some swayed, some spun crazy circles. Others broke out their best Dead show moves and cast a happy spell on any who chose to watch them. Little girls in capes & princess outfits ran around screaming happily. Our circus had come to town again. As the sun dropped below the huge columns of the Greek stage the band emerged for the second set.
With dark upon the land, Candace Brightman, Phil’s longtime lighting designer, got a chance to dazzle us. Using lots of solid blocks of color and then breaking them up with subtle shifts in tone & texture, the lighting managed to be both responsive to the music being played and expressive in its own right. Outside of the geniuses who work the light board for moe. I think Candace may be the best lighting tech in the jam scene. The interplay of light and sound is nearly always perfect and enhances the experience in a way that frankly transcends words.
Warmed up already the band skipped an intro jam and just launched into a powerful version of The Real Thing, long a staple of Warren Haynes’ solo shows and now a full blown rock n’ roll epic. A crowd pleasing Not Fade Away lifted us into the air and then landed at a swell take on the Beatles’ She Said She Said. The evening had been so unearthly beautiful already that when I heard the opening notes of Lady With A Fan setting us off towards Terrapin Station all I could say was nice, nice, nice over and over under my breath.
It was an inspired choice and one that fit this particular night in a magical way. It reminded me that what we as fans are looking for by seeing show after show is alchemy. We want to see the mundane hours of our lives transformed into gold inside the crucible of a concert hall. And we got our wish with this Terrapin, which to my ears was the loveliest version I’ve heard this line-up ever do.
All night Phil led the band with serious musical authority. His powerful new bass sometimes pulled them out of a jam with the sheer force of a song’s melody played on the low notes. But Phil’s voice also thundered with a power and real (and I don’t use this word lightly) majesty that made the heart ache just a little. He is developing into a band leader on par with greats like Duke Ellington, a leader with a vision who also possesses a keen humility that lets everyone in the band contribute & shape this thing they make together.
The Stella Blue that surfaced just before the Inspiration section of Terrapin had a delicate quality that rivaled the finest times Jerry Garcia ever sang this special song. Warren understands the hope & desperation of this tune in intimate ways that he always succeeds in conveying with his voice and his spine tingling guitar work. As this perfect slice of melancholy came to a close the crowd roared the words along with the band that brought us into the Station and then back out onto the road with a sizzling I Know You Rider. Again, Jimmy just blew out the doors with a solo that made many of us howl with delight.
Without leaving the stage due to an early noise curfew in Berkeley, Phil introduced the band and then led them through a rollicking Passenger. As I gathered my things afterwards all I could think was what a brave, tremendous group of guys these are. Each time Phil thanks us for making this music with them I can only say thank you back to him and his four musical soulmates for the gift of each show. In a world with too little heart and too little real beauty Phil Lesh and Friends stand out as a rare, wonderful break from the ugliness and negativity that seem to abound these days.