Phil Lesh & Friends (Quintet), Meadows Music Center, Hartford, CT- 7/18
It is easy to forget that the Quintet is a very young band still in the early stages of its evolution. With a line-up that includes some of the very best consummate musicians in the world of rock n roll, with the vast musical mileage covered in each show, not to mention each tour, with a songbook that contains many, many songs with 30 year or longer histories, it really is easy to forget that this band played for the first time in the fall of 2000. (Excepting, of course the April 2000 show at the Beacon, when Warren’s guest appearance brought all the members of the current line-up, plus Pevar, together for the first time.) Over the course of 2001, the band matured and each member began to truly fashion a space of his own in the soupy psychedelic brew that is the band’s sound- Jimmy and Warren separated from each other, forming foils instead of a single four armed guitar god pulled from some South East Asian hallucination. Molo began to stretch out, relying more on tight toms, bells and blocks for percussion, and Rob found a fine balance between playing lead and joining with Molo to paint with percussive piano- watch even now as both Molo and Jimmy look constantly to Baracco show after show. With 2002, Phil’s already buoyant bass has a new vitality, a refreshed presence in the mix, still commanding the musical expeditions, but also joining the fray in a more egalitarian way- it’s dynamic and explosive.
This year has also seen the band testing new ideas. The release of There and Back Again (the subtitle of Tolkien’s The Hobbit) put much of the new material in greater rotation, and the songs are finding their places. Energetic numbers like Night of a Thousand Stars and Celebration are frequent openers and closers; Again and Again is unique in its weirdness and as such often offers a nice reprieve from the chaos of the most harried jams; No More Do I and Welcome to the Underground fill that need for slick aggression, working well with tunes like Just a Little Light or Low Spark. But aside from the altered song rotation, there seems to be a new playfulness in the jams. Things are a bit cartoonier than before; everything is not so dramatic. But as with Phil’s own bass playing, the effect is dynamic- now sounds are screwy and strange, now utterly transcendent, now gritty, now crazed, now clean.
The summer tour, thus far, has been filled with experiments in approach and technique, some more successful than others. The show in Holmdel, New Jersey on July 13th is a prime example. While both Derek Trucks and Jorma Kaukonen played exhilarating sets to open the show, Derek being joined by Jimmy for a monster Favorite Things during which both students of Col. Bruce simultaneously detuned their guitars in mid-jam, and Jorma starting his set early to squeeze in as much music as possible, including a run of Death Don’t, Living in the Moment > Embryonic Journey, and Good Shepard (that was a show in itself!), the Quintet played two drastically different sets. Set I was very laid back, a summer time set speckled with few moments of brilliance (although I’m not sure we should always by striving for brilliance). There was a short jamlet, possibly a minute or two in length, just after Rob declared Bertha, but before the tune began, that was simply gorgeous- forceful and gentle, like a cool brook. The jam out of Midnight Train and into Broken Arrow also sent shivers down my spine, but the opening Jam > Alligator was messy, even frayed, and the Rider was, well, calm. Again, that’s not necessarily bad; the ability to play more relaxed material, with a more relaxed attitude, without being too delicate, might really benefit this band, they just haven’t developed that ability yet.
Set II, however, was an entirely different beast. The Jam > Night of a Thousand Stars that opened the set could be easily overlooked on paper, but a recording would show that it walked a dusky jungle path, eyes always focused on the darkness ahead, though the lush foliage tried time and again to block the way, or at least unnerve the spirit. And that was before Derek joined for Blue Sky, and two suites of the baddest material the Quintet plays. Such a range of sound, such a multitude of jamlets and themes and teases perforated the movements that I’d be hard pressed to retrace their courses. At times the band epitomized cool, and at times the pandemonium they produced was almost too much to bear, but throughout there was a sense of style and purpose. Based on the Gathering of the Vibes’ sets, it seems that a sense of purpose is all this band needs to realize its potential. That doesn’t mean they have to be firing all eight cylinders at once to excel; the purpose may be to find the darkest place possible, or to follow a single lazy river road through a suite or a set, or it may even be to simply find a new sound, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there is a focus in some direction- these guys are just too wild, too spacey, too good to do without one.
The focus of the first set in Hartford was on individual songs, not the Phil Lesh Quintet’s strength. That being said, it was one of those sets that just felt right. The band slammed into King Solomon’s Marbles right out of the gate, cutting around the sharp turns and dropping into Stronger Than Dirt clothed in a shower of notes from Jimmy. The band made quick work of the composition, and Herring shot out on an amazing solo, flying through the molten canyons of the sun. Staying with precise compositions, the group played another in a string of strong Night of a Thousand Stars before slinking into a slightly slowed, very slick Mason’s Children. Warren oozed over the intro, beads of his lush guitar dripping down its frame. Jimmy capitalized on the inherit energy of the first verses by leading the jam with a tight solo that eventually unhinged and crumbled to piano noodles and hot rhythm bursts from Warren. The music drifted but was not too long gone before stumbling back to final verses. An intentionally disjointed exiting jam opened on a plain with gusts of guitar and piano, vague Dark Star hints and full Other One teases, and eventually landed in a mean, mean Welcome to the Underground.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Grateful Dead recently and been enthralled with their compositions all over again, and as such, the song oriented set was right on the mark. But the highlight of the set was unquestionably the Eyes > Wharf Rat, each tune clocking in at fifteen minutes. Again, nice, tight playing was the order of the day as the Quintet rolled blissfully through Eyes, Rob and Warren sharing leads on the first jam, and Jimmy spilling over the surface of the second. Molo was locked into the perfect groove, sounding like a drummer and a half, and guiding the course of the whole song- a great version to get lost in. The music floated effortlessly, naturally, into a gorgeous, majestic Wharf Rat. Warren grew to gigantic proportions and towered over the crowd, feeding off his own guitar and vocals.
If the first set felt right, the second set was just about perfect- a journey through some tie-dyed image of a 1968 that never existed. Jimmy kicked back and gave a huge grin as he cut into the psychedelic pop of Til the Morning Comes, although it was a fantastic solo from Warren that brought the tune to fruition. The exiting jam was immediately a mass of gears and wheels all spinning and grinding in some strange rhythmic pattern- actually it sounded like a Ratdog jam- before it sighed and settled into a spacey interlude of military rolls and single bloated notes from Warren. More vague Dark Star hints gave way to the celestial dawn of New Potato Caboose. The song is a masterpiece of 60s composition and content- a really unique song that climbs a tenuous stairway to the heavens. The last verse pushed the instrumentation off the precipice and it floated down so slowly, swaying from side to side like a feather. Suddenly caught in an updraft and carried in Molo’s arms, the jam rested momentarily in a pretty place before Phil sounded in and pushed the movement in a variety of directions. An Other One tease led to a swirling column of intense music, an energetic jamlet that won loud cheers when it dispersed again into the hazy summer night. By this point the jam was breathing on its own; with each inhalation, a new theme, be it Dark Star, or Truckin’, or a scary, alien soundscape; with each exhalation, a return to space.
A powerful St. Stephen grounded the band and the audience once. Like so much of the show, it was none too long, but focused and energetic, with Warren’s mid song solo flying up and up and up, and a gloriously rendered return to the final verse from the whole band. A brief moment of ease separated the song from an anthemic (seems that most Beatles’ covers are anthemic) I Am the Walrus, complete with a Molo fueled all out rock n roll jam at the end. The movement switched gears and Phil’s bouncy bass line initiated another groove jamlet that collapsed and reformed as a full Dark Star jam and finally rode into The Eleven, thoughts jewels polished and gleaming.
The suite ended with a nice Uncle John’s Band, one of the smoothest transitions in a night of smooth transitions. The first jam was a great example of the Herring/Barraco connection, Rob attacking the piano as fast as Jimmy’s million notes, then Jimmy attacking his guitar, as fast as Rob’s million notes. The final jam shone with tongues of fire lapping at its sides- it could’ve ended the show, but instead the band tore down the house with another in a string of interesting and enthralling Lovelights. This tune epitomizes PLQ’s sound and approach right now. It remains true to the song, but also wanders far astray in short time, playing in recessed caverns before returning just as quickly to the vocal beds. Warren was shaking and snapping his fingers as he sang the second verse- just electric. And he stretched out the third over bar after bar with insane soul power. If you haven’t heard a 2002 Lovelight, do yourself a favor and get one as soon as possible.
Many fans will remember that the 2001 Hartford show was the talk of the lot for weeks afterward, even on Trey tour. With that kind of precedent, it was hard to go into this year’s event expecting the best, but the band really came through. Most shows I’ve seen this year have had one set significantly outshining another, but this one was really a fine creation from the first note of King Solomon’s Marbles to the last note of Brokedown Palace.