Phil Lesh Quintet, The Orpheum, Boston MA- 11/23
It's been too long. In the year and half since the Phil Lesh Quintet (the "Q" as he's taken to calling it) last graced our theaters, the North East has been anything but deprived of Phil's devastating, increasingly vibrant bass work But there is a special chemistry in this band of intrepid travelers; a preternatural communication, a dose of majestic chaos and misrule, that transcendent something that parallels Miles Davis's great quintet from which the band takes its name. And it's just been too long since the magic has been on stage.
The first of three nights at the Orpheum opened with a movin' little jam that essentially laid the course for the whole evening. With swirls and lurches, the music was at times beautiful, at times too loose. A Sunshine of Your Love tease flared up briefly, but died down to nothingness. A painful tease, as what could possibly make a better opener? And then from the nothingness, Sunshine of Your Love! The tease, then, was more of a missed start than a tease. Such was the unfolding of the night's adventures: some moments of greatness, mixed with moments of inaccuracy.
During the Cream cover, Rob's B-3 bursts melted into a heavy handed solo from Jimmy, which in turn melted into a weird, spacey jam that was not necessarily in keeping with vibe. After the final verse, the music swelled again, now simultaneously chaotic and soaring, with Warren and Jimmy both adding long, wavering notes. The introduction of a shuffle step calmed the progress, and eventually the sounds drifted back into space. The oh so delicate introduction to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds materialized naturally from the lulled sounds, harkening a nice version of the Beatles anthem, and visions of Boston Common in spring. In the end, however, the opening suite looks better on paper than it actually was.
The second suite was stronger, and included a number of moments of breathtakingly precise playing. The Wheel was low and slow from the outset, and after the first verses dropped into that classic PLQ soup, before sinking even lower, and discovering a hidden third verse to Low Spark. As the band roared to the climax, Warren belted out "... it was the low spark of…" stopping short, and allowing the audience the final words. But the band, in a split second shift, was back into The Wheel- an incredibly deft transition, daring and impeccably rendered.
Out of another serving of soup came a surprise highlight, Built to Last. Jimmy's early solo was simply brilliant; short and gorgeous, it won a huge grin from Phil, and was the micro-scale apex of the night. The song ended with snappy sticks from Molo that set off a fantastic rolling jam that hinted at Scarlet, but dropped into a sterling Eyes of the World. Rob danced over the keys, Warren whipping in wa wa effects for support, and the band was in the moment. After the final verse, Molo exploded across his kit, eliciting laughter and raised eyebrows from Phil. For a moment it seemed as if the band might slide into the old King Solomon's breakdown, but instead they plunged into a broad, utterly satisfying Mason's Children.
The jam opening the second set was jazzier than that which opened the first, and once it started to really happen, the band actually sounded like the mid-sixties Quintet; a very fine bit of playing that crumbled, as all good things do, and lurched into Dear Mr. Fantasy. The tagline was reworked, and newly energized. The first jam, however, brought the music low to a pretty purple place. Warren took the lead, quickly soaring to a shining Hey Jude lick to peak, and setting the crowd to howling. Moments later, Rob echoed the tease on the B-3, and it seemed like the Finale might materialize, but Warren returned to the Traffic tune's next verse.
A wobbly, off kilter jam out of Fantasy stabilized with the addition of a new groove cunningly crafted by Phil and Rob (throughout the night, the two tag teamed a number times), which solidified into Not Fade Away. The classic set the entire crowd to joyous dancing that carried right through a train wreck transition and on into Bertha. It was the great crowd pleaser of the night.
The real sex, though, was the closer. For the PLQ, it doesn't get more standard than Help on the Way > Slipknot > 11 > Slipknot > Franklin's, but that suite is also what they do best. The transition from Help to Slip was cataclysmic, and wild swirling sounds ensued. A moment of solid beats and leads firing in all different directions snapped and unveiled a strange, purple (the color of the night in hind sight), misty place- the nether regions. Suddenly Phil popped up with a monumental Millennium Jam, brief though it was, that seamlessly melted into a perfect 11. Jimmy took the lead for the spiraling freefall and all the elements came together exactly right at exactly the right moment; even Warren's short lashing solo that opened the way back to Slipknot was superbly placed and timed. W/ a rolling, rolling Franklin's Tower, the Quintet set the room to dancing once again, and brought a mixed evening to a close with nothing but grace and style. As it turned out, it had been way too long.