Phil Lesh and Friends, Frost Amphitheater, Palo Alto, CA- 6/2
It has been seven years since Phil Lesh played bass with Grateful Dead, but his musical ride continues apace with strong new songs and a powerhouse five-piece band. He brought that band to Stanford University’s gorgeous Frost Amphitheater on a bright Sunday afternoon to conclude a west-coast tour that had garnered rave reviews and excellent crowds. The concert staples of The Grateful Dead, such as “Uncle John’s Band”, “Good Lovin’”, and “The Wheel” were played with powerful effect for the 7,000 teens-to-elders capacity crowd, many of whom had witnessed or heard about the band’s Friday and Saturday night shows across the Bay, at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. The concert was uniformly splendid, and the idyllic setting backdropped the music in a spectacular way.
Rather than crunch to a stop between songs, PL & F will glide on a “jam” that provides a structural segue to concert numbers, seamlessly ending one song, jamming, and then sliding into the start of the next. This enjoyable practice especially enhanced the entire second set Sunday, when jams were interspersed with Dead all-timers like “Eyes of the World”, “Other One”, “Help on the Way” and new PL & F songs like “Midnight Train”. Lesh on bass and vocals was joined by Warren Haynes (The Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule) and Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Allman Brothers Band) on guitars, and the two seared and supported the music admirably all afternoon.
Haynes lent vocal heft to many songs, including a countryish gem called “Patchwork Quilt” from the new PL & F album “There and Back Again”. Keyboardist Rob Barraco added moody Hammond organ, glistening piano and runs, and synthesizer counterpoints all afternoon and also sang a new number “Leave Me Out of This”. The musicians in the band are the essence of professionals, and have bonded over time on the road into a tight but loose outfit, nimble beyond words. Drummer John Molo was the metronome in so many of Bruce Hornsby’s earliest hits, and his live playing sacrifices none of that crispness but adds a hint of bombast that matches the wide-open melodic blasts from Haynes and Herring.
Molo ruled the roost, sounding like a kit drummer with an accompanying percussionist when a jam stretched from a cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” to “Good Lovin’” to end the titanic first set. During that quarter of an hour, guitar fills reminiscent of the Dead’s Jerry Garcia flew, and the crowd’s bliss of the moment was colored with thousands of collective fond memories from concerts past and treasured Grateful Dead bootlegs.
After a half-hour break, the band returned and picked up where they left off, with the previously-mentioned second set becoming one long number, boasting eight songs woven with jams for more than an hour and a half. The opening jam into “Eyes of the World” had Haynes with a Midi-esque effect on his guitar, a tone Garcia used to great effect for so long. Molo pounded the groove gong of a cowbell during “Eyes”, and locked in his right foot on the bass drum to Phil’s churning bass during the jam out of “Eyes”. A Santana or War-inspired passage came next, followed by a reference to show opener “Uncle John’s Band”, a measure or so of the Allman’s “Revival”, and maybe the tiniest hint of “Doe, a Deer” from “The Sound of Music” before “The Wheel” took over.
“The Wheel” and its country stomp made one remember that Warren Haynes played with David Allen Coe and can transform the veneer of a song with a single strategic guitar theme or vocal intonation. When “Other One” (first and second verses) popped up, the guitar play was at its whining and insistent best, and a “Who Do You Love?” quote came directly before the segue back into “The Wheel”. As “The Wheel” slowed, Haynes burned the guitar blast of Tom Waits’ “Going Out West” for a few measures before the band fell into the new Lesh song “Midnight Train”. To finish the set, “Help on the Way” turned into “Slipknot!”, with Molo’s tricky counts accentuating many parts of the song.
The shadows were lengthening as the band meandered into “Franklin’s Tower”, where Phil, singing lead, raised his voice and his sweat-banded right arm with a smile and let the ecstatic crowd all the way into his emotions and his memories. Lesh had played with the Dead at Frost more than a dozen times in the 1980’s, but this was the first time in more than a decade that music unrelated to Stanford had come to this campus glade. We can only hope that this wonderful venue, with superb sound and sight lines and grassed, gradually sloping terraced wide-rows with direct sun ringed by deep trees, will welcome more bands of all descriptions back.
Parking was easy and free, and the campus was a welcoming place for the throngs that made the pilgrimage to the historic Grateful Dead and Merry Prankster stomping grounds. Indeed, a link to that cultural past was visible stage left, twirling with “Franklin’s Tower” and the rest of the music: Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams, one of the earliest fans of the band and Merry Pranskster co-conspirator. Beautiful and natural, she reconnected with thirty-five years of Grateful Dead history and music, and led by example.
After returning to the stage and brief comments by Phil about the past and the future, Lesh and the band played a twin encore that capped the day perfectly. “Celebration”, off the new PL & F album, fit the day perfectly both aurally and thematically, led to a rolling cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light”. “Love Light” was done in the style of so many Grateful Dead concerts, with Haynes taking impassioned singing duties and Herring providing hot-rodded leads throughout. Vibrato guitar hung on the coolness of the approaching evening, and the moment stretched on. The band and crowd joined in one final group exhortation to “let it shine!”, and the players left the stage to thunderous applause for both the music and the experience at Frost.