Phil Lesh & Friends, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, NJ- 11/23
Phil Lesh rolled into Newark with his new entourage of Friends on Tuesday and Wednesday. For this latest tour, Mr. Lesh has employed Chris Robinson (of the Black Crowes and New Earth Mud) to handle vocal duties, Larry Campbell, (former Bob Dylan guitarist), to play lead guitar, Barry Sless (of the Dave Nelson Band) as another lead guitarist, Mookie Segal (of the Dave Nelson Band and Kingfish) as the groups keyboardist and Phil and Friends alumnus (and recent John Fogerty drummer) John Molo to pound the skins.
The New Jersey Performing Arts Center is a beautiful and relatively new venue in the heart of Newark. Built originally to house orchestral concerts and to compete with New York symphonic halls such as Lincoln Center, the auditorium boasts near perfect acoustics. Even so, the vocals were still inexplicably low in the mix, particularly when Phil took the mike. The bassists vocals were almost inaudible.
The Wednesday night show was the third of this tour, as well as being the third with this new line up. Following an extremely successful Vegoose run with longtime Phil and Friends, Other Ones and Dead guitarist, Jimmy Herring, Phil announced that Jimmy would be leaving the ensemble to pursue other musical endeavors (Aquarium Rescue Unit?) and consequently, he would be replaced by Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell. While this decision may have raised some skepticism among Phil fans, their fears were most certainly assuaged after hearing Campbells tasteful and fresh new take on Jerry Garcias classic lead guitar lines.
When the group took the stage, they looked like a band of misfits who had been thrown together without any rhyme or reason. Chris Robinson was donning a rock star outfit, including a tight-fitting shirt and ripped designer jeans; Barry Sless was decked out in full hippie garb, complete with a purple shirt and a tie-dye headband, while Larry Campbell was wearing all black, perhaps a tribute to his Dylan days. Yet as soon as they hit the first notes, it was clear that this was a cohesive, musical force. Phil and his crew walked out onto stage with a collective look of determination which never wavered throughout the evening (sans a few smiles). Opening with crowd favorite Shakedown Street (complete with audience interactive Whoos), Phil was frolicking right out of the gates. Shakedown was followed by a faithful rendition of the Dylan, Basement Tapes chestnut, This Wheels on Fire, with Robinson flawlessly emulating Mr. Zimmermans drawn out, nasal whine. The band then jammed straight into The Wheel, which was perfectly punctuated by Slesss beautiful pedal steel playing. They then proceeded to plow through a myriad of Dead classics and covers, closing with a high-energy Turn on Your Lovelight, making for a thoroughly enjoyable, although not transcendent set.
Every Dead aficionado knows that the true heart of any show comes during the second set and on Wednesday night, Phil maintained that cherished tradition. From the set opening Sittin On Top of The World, (featuring harmonica work from Robinson) the band tore down all psychological and sensory barriers which may have preexisted in the audience members minds. Campbell and Sless wove epic tales with their dueling lead guitars, which were anchored down by Leshs creative, improvisational bass lines and Molos rhythmic backbeat. Unfortunately, Segal got a bit lost in the mix; yet when his keyboard could be heard, he made a greatly appreciated melodic contribution.
Early in the set, the band offered back-to-back Garcia classics: Cats Under the Stars (from Garcias 1978 solo album of the same name) and Bird Song (from the guitarists 1972 self-titled solo debut). Robinson breathed new life into the former, while Lesh took over vocally on the latter. Another highlight was Robinson leading the crowd in a sing-along version of the Beatles Youve Got to Hide Your Love Away. The night culminated in classic Grateful Dead fashion, with a crowd pleasing St. Stephen segueing into a jam laden Eyes of the World, which in turn, morphed into Uncle Johns Band. Although these songs are all tried and true Dead warhorses, each gained new life, due largely in part to the musical creativity of their new interpreters. Throughout the night, Sless flawlessly recreated Jerrys signature licks, while Campbell added his own, new musical flavor to the songs, making for the perfect mix of old and new. Uncle Johns Band contained the evenings only sign that this was a brand-new band, as Robinson came in on the opening line a few measures too early. Yet this minor mishap gave carried an endearing quality (after all, its not as if Jerry or Bobby never flubbed a line or two). The band closed the set with a raucous take on Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, with Robinson, Lesh and Campbell each singing a verse.
The evenings most musically exhilarating moment came during the encore. After Phil gave his donor rap, he dropped the opening bass lines to the quintessential Grateful Dead jamming vehicle, Dark Star, to an immense roar from the ecstatic crowd. This was the first time any Dead related ensemble had used Dark Star as an encore since 1984. The song took those in attendance on a musically whimsical journey, as the jam went in all kinds of directions (with Robinson dancing awkwardly next to Phil all the while), yet always came back to that grand, underlying theme; a theme which never fails to strike excitement into the heart of this particular Deadhead. Throughout the show (but most indicatively in the second set), this new ensemble truly conveyed the essence of the Grateful Dead.
This week, the future of the Grateful Deads music on Archive.org came into question. If the free shows are pulled offline, many fans threatened to boycott Dead merchandise and official concert releases. Petitions were signed by thousands of fans in protest. Phil Lesh is the only band member who has released an official statement supporting the requests of his loyal fan base. What the future will hold for the music of the Grateful Dead remains unclear. Yet no matter what happens to the beloved online music source, one thing is clear: with Phil Lesh at the helm, both the music and legacy of the Grateful Dead are in good hands.