Phil Lesh & Friends / Umphrey’s McGee, San Francisco Civic Auditorium- 2/12
Umphrey's McGee began their opening set ten minutes early surprising everyone at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. Hell, they always tempt logic and move into areas completely unexpected. Isn't that sort of their average working jamming band creed? Yes and no. For one thing, UM doesn't seem to do anything that would be considered normal. That much is true. However, they no longer resemble just one of the pack. Since the painful demise (some argue overdue? some, too soon?) of Phish last year, no greater source than Relix has proclaimed the band as a contender to the vacated mythical jamband crown. Ahh…America and its competitive nature. Must everything be a sporting event? a beauty contest? a Lifetime Achievement Award? Red carpets and rock music never did mix anyway. Yes, but N'Awlins always goes down well and Mardi Gras was in full bone crushing glory on Saturday, February 12 with UM opening for legendary Dead bassist Phil Lesh and a few hundred of his favorite musicians.
Opening with San Fran, Umphrey's McGee brought the house quickly to its dancing Birks and old Cons by moving into quick and smart lock-step time signatures. If they are anything, McGee are the masters of seasoned composure. Guitars drift-in-and-out of melodies and crunch chords. Keyboards lift and color while the bass shifts architectural space deftly holding tempo with the twin percussionists. This is Allman Brothers Band music re-written and played in different tongues by six musicians who know exactly where they are headed and don't feel the need to rush the inevitable.
Brendan Bayliss is the band's focal point while handling most of the vocals and sharing lead and rhythm guitar duties with the equally brilliant Jake Cinninger. The duo offer opposing physical and sonic portraits. The unique ability of the two guitarists to extend, deepen and escalate the rhythm of their songs is astounding. I found myself grooving, headbanging and lifting a fist while trying to push my jaw up from its position of "Wowthese guys redefine hose!"
And pressure? What pressure? Later on the band eases into The Bottom Half, Glory, and Women Wine and Songwhich when I turn and look at the people in the seats in the balcony hovering over the Mardi Gras crowd below, seems to achieve a headliner-like buzz from the crowd. Opening act? What opening act? Bayliss jokingly asks: "Anyone here from the Midwest?" These guys need to step away from the shadow of their prior generations…which brings us to Party Peeps>Franklin's Tower.
Umphrey's was ripping a new hole methodically and precisely in the roof above my head when Phil Lesh entered from upstage left and practically duck walked to the middle of the stage. He had a shit-eating grin on his face, was having a major blast and wanted everyone from Market to Knob Hill to know it. This hilarious look did not leave his face for the remaining five hours plus of the sometimes-exhilarating yet turgid musical circus that is the one-off PLF for this evening.
At first, I am a bit bemused that they are playing Weekapaug…uh…Franklin's Tower, a Dead song they played last year with Mr. Lesh. In an era where every musician in the jam scene seems to be pulling a Trey Anastasio and moving quickly onto the next frontier, we've got an old warhorse tagged onto the set of yet another powerful show from a band that seems light years away from their supposed godfathers. I don't know…maybe, it would have been more appropriate to have Chris Squire or Steve Howe or Steve Hackett playing with Umphrey'sbut, hell, my review, my opinion.
I think the music scene needs another punk era right about now to clean out some of the old and CC'd and start from something a little left of center. Then again, any band that lists "bass, no vocals-Ryan Stasik" may already know a thing or two that Johnny Rotten didn't spit from stage.
Anyway…they played well for 70 minutes and ended on a gigantic note (or should I say a series of furiously-played notes) with a Franklin's Tower that…let's check the randomly scribbled mental notes: incendiary-Bayliss and Cinninger shredclear liquid fire-Lesh encourages the mayhem-two-headed fantastic GodchillaCummins keyboard solomore brilliance-Stasik, Myers, Farag push everyone onwards-guitars finish in this amazing 5/8/77 Not Fade Away>St. Stephen, any moe. show from 2002-2004 liquid mercury Dylan moment-did I say brilliant?
Lights up. Light up. Drink down. Look around. Man, its 1985 again. Is that Wavy Gravy? Make it '69: "What we have in mind is a really long show that will leave you exhausted and wanting 90 gallons of water to make it out the door."
Former Galactic singer Theryl "Houseman" DeClouet opened up with a powerful version of Party as Phil Lesh and Friends began their three-and-a-half hour Mardi Gras extravaganza at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. First time played. There would be a lot of those breakouts as the mondo expando PL & F gave their second series of performances after the December Warfield run. The Opening Party went on for about ten minutes and really got the house back on their collective feetsmoking the edges of the stage after an incendiary set from the mercurial Umphrey's McGee.
Lesh had finished their set by sitting in on a heavy metal/funk/speed demon version of Franklin's Tower that left more than one observer wondering how his inflated Feast of Friends was going to top that number. Well…lo and behold; Lesh just went on to play a 90-minute first set and a two-hour second set. Shades of Dead '72-'74 hung from the rafters next to the hundreds of balloons waiting to drop on the Legions of Phil mid-set on this Lincoln's Birthday '05 Saturday eve. The band included the usual suspects Jimmy Herring and John Molo and (deep breath) Chris Robinson of Page and solo fame soon to be back with the mighty Black Crowes, Steve Molitz, Particle's keyboardist, ex-Lesh band member Barry Sless on electric and steel guitars, four members from Railroad EarthTim Carbone on violin, John Skehan, mandolin, Todd Sheaffer, occasional lead vocals and acoustic, Andy Goessling, numerous brass, banjos, dobros, hats and flutes, Carey Harmon, percussion, and, oh yeah, Gloria Jones and Jackie LaBranch, vocalists from the Jerry Garcia Band circa-mid 80s to early 90s.
The size and experienced depth of the band was both the pleasurable and irritating aspect of the music. At one point, a veritable full band version of Dueling Banjos was going onhalf the stage (right) played electric while the other half played acoustic. This would have been fine if the mix had been handled properly. Instead, we got a reenactment of the Wall of Sound resurrected as the Wall of Noise. It's one thing for Sonic Youth to belt you in the face with a barrage of Inner City Feedback; it's quite another to have a huge band posing as Count Basie on Acid. This was a rare minor quibble; other than that, as stated previously, we got a huge breakout banquet: Party, Carnival, Cumberland Blues>Goat, Carnivaltime, Hurricane>Below Radar>You've Got to Hide Your Love Away. What was most amazing was while the band appeared to be winging the many covers, Lesh and his cohorts all handled the tenuous bond between focused song craft and improvised madness quite well. Robinson, especially, had the odd chore of hopping on-and-off stage after spirited readings of various covers most notably being the fantastic sequence of Dylan's Hurricane (the evening's highlight) which segued into a beautifully smooth jam which segued into a sublime Below Radar>You've Got to Hide Your Love Away>Playin' in the Band reprise. You had to admire Lesh's ability to direct traffic while his band went through a number of schizophrenic modulations.
Lesh chose surprise in developing his set lists; although, this sometimes brought awkward pauses in the nearly non-stop foot stomping and twirling (case in point: the meandering jams as Herring and Lesh attempt to weave a transitionsometimes successful, sometimes not). Again, a minor quibble. The band rose to even higher levels after the fifteen-minute second set opening Mardi Gras parade lumbered through an obviously buzzed and thrilled crowd. The holiday chestnut, Aiko Aiko, was wheeled out on its hallowed stretcher showing a little bit of wear and tear, but Robinson and the "Houseman" reinvigorated the old fart with some very soulful singing to get the crowd to an ecstatic overload. I managed to catch some of the numerous strands of beads thrown from a float and I had to laugh and shake my head. The beads hang on my closet door behind me in my office/den/pile-of-crap-with-no-place-to-go room while I write. I'm listening to Trey's Secret Smile, ironically, right now as Undermind heads towards its masterful conclusion. Old habits die hard. Bittersweet evening watching the soon-to-be 65 year old Lesh playing his heart out with his largest contingent yet; a smile covered his youthful face the entire evening from 6:50 when he joined Umphrey's for Franklin's Tower until the closing moments of his great epic American Beauty penned with Robert Hunter, Box of Rain, at 12:40.
"Hold on…hold on…" Mr. Lesh. And you know, he will.
The Mardi Gras beads I grabbed out of the San Francisco musty air? They had a series of fish in between green beads. Fish…heh heh. Old habits never die. I suppose they just move into new areas with a little bit of yesterday's magic dust.