Phil Lesh & Friends, A.J. Palumbo Center, Pittsburgh, PA- 11/29
I predict that by the year 2010 Phil Lesh will have played with at least one member of every jamband that’s in existence today. The revolving door of his many Friends moved again for his Shadow Of The Moon Winter Tour. The only mainstay from his Vegoose line up turned out to be Barry Sless on guitar and pedal steel. Mookie Siegel (keyboards, vocals) returns to the band as well as John Molo who reminded us that he’s a rhythm monster on drums while Chris Robinson (vocals, guitar), Larry Campbell (guitar, pedal steel, fiddle and cittern, a.k.a. Irish bouzouki) filled out the roster.
While Bob Dylan uses new arrangements to find deeper nuance and personal enjoyment from his material, Lesh views his group of Friends as a method to reshape and color familiar songs and bring in additional numbers that will be molded to fit the latest personality of the band members. Like a first rehearsal there’s a sense of excitement over what may occur as well as a touch of sadness that onetime Friends are gone (momentarily?) as you get used to the new ones.
It’s a testament to the professionalism, talent and eagerness to please the musical gods, and, in turn, those in the crowd who encourage the without-a-net interplay that a major musical turnover in a band ends up running so smoothly.
If there was a misstep during the three-hour show at least it took place early in the first set. After a “Let the Good Times Roll” opener, the sextet went into “Tennessee Jed. For some reason, Robinson couldn’t get a grip on when to come in during all the verses, even with the aid of Sless. But the Palumbo Center crowd, excited to be together and in the presence of this music, cut him slack.
Robinson, visibly upset during “Jed,” regained his footing with “Girl On The Mountain,” the first of two New Earth Mud tunes played. Staying with that image, Lesh sang lead on “Mountains Of The Moon,” following what sounded like a brief “Dark Star” tease.
A few setlist surprises came about as far as placement – “The Weight” and “Not Fade Away” closing the first set. Then, a “Terrapin Station” that had all the rhythmic speed of Casey Jones driving that train high on cocaine. Plus, there was the inclusion of “Big River.” A friendly nod to Lesh’s bandmate of 30 years plus change? A diss to Bob Weir? None of the above? Discuss amongst yourselves.
As far as the Friends…Robinson’s rough bluesy voice found its place during “Peggy-O,” but he seemed a bit tentative to let loose and more like a fan who still can’t believe his luck. Siegel gave solid support with only several opportunities to really show his stuff.
While the Jimmy Herring Appreciation Society is probably still mourning, Campbell did as well as I envisioned. Based on his experience and having seen him a number of times during the seven-plus years he played in Bob Dylan’s band during the Never Ending Tour, I felt comfortable with what he could do. At Palumbo he showed much more. He brings a strong sense of swing that must have been refined during his tenure with Dylan. His contributions on fiddle, pedal steel and cittern brought new textures to the overall sound. Also, it seems that there was additional opportunities for Sless’s electric guitar playing.
The group of musicians onstage were able to give the music a bluesy or country feel with the Molo steam engine keeping the foundation rockin’ all night long. Yeah, the good times did roll. We’ll just see how long they will with this group of players. Enjoy em while you can.