Phil Lesh & Friends, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Buffalo, NY- 12/3
As we worked our way to the velvet-roped marquee of the Shea's Saturday night, what surprised me was not the sub-freezing temperatures (this was a December night in Buffalo) but the number of folks who had braved those temperatures, waving their index fingers in the air looking for their miracle. I had caught a Trey show in this exact theater no more than three weeks ago, and tickets were far more easily accessible. This night was different, however. This evening — at Buffalo's hundred year old gothic-style gem — featured not only Phil's Shadow of the Moon tour running mate Chris Robinson on vocals, but also the virtuostic John Scofield filling in for Larry Campell on guitar; a special treat dished out only two nights this tour.
Merely an hour and a half earlier, a few pre-show party buddies filled me in on the status of Phil's tour thus far, beaming at how nice the band sounded. Now fast-forward three hours. It's setbreak. The yellow-jacketed security guards have yet to impede the flow of dancing freaks that occupied the Fear and Loathingesque carpet that swirled beneath their feet. The house lights went down and revealed the eerie blue aura of light that illuminated the stage. From that moment on, Scofield, with his songbook perched to his front, gelled perfectly with his bandmates, adding the expected jazzy tang to Garcia’s original compositions. An evil noodle-around preceded the set opener “Shakedown Street,” which had Robinson dancin' it up between blasts of his honey-throated vocals. And when he wasn't giving his pipes a workout, Robinson was able to take a few siestas when his mates ventured off on psychedelic tangents. The versatile Barry Sless rotated from keys to pedal steel and back again, offering his services on a wicked version of “New Speedway Boogie,” which showcased one of the night's most raucous jams.
And when the band was on (which they were, for the bulk of the night) — they were dead-on. It was the times when they strayed from the note-for-note path into a thick forest of improvisation when Scofield was at his best. Sco splashed in his fusion-laden guitar work on a version of “Turn on Your Lovelight” akin to Woodstock's 35-minute epic and showed signs of Jerry-like soloing, only with a Birds of Fire ambience. Phil also found himself in fine form. And if you didn't know the name of this band was Phil Lesh and Friends, you would never realize the man set back as far as John Molo's drum kit helped pioneer one of the most influential bands in rock history. As always, Phil played the role of one of the most humble men in music, providing countless low-end platforms for his band members to launch from, and only taking over lead vocal duties on a few select tunes (concluding, of course, with his nightly organ donor speech). The shaggy, hippie look-a-like Robinson led the band on stage for the encore of “Bertha,” with Phil, of course, having no problem bringing up the rear. “Bertha” smacked the perfect exclamation mark on a night that offered arguably a lineup of talent much the same to the “Phil and Phriends” roster of '99 — a collection of musicians featuring Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell and Steve Kimock. And as Phil slowly walked off the stage, there were no feelings of doubt about his future, no reason to believe the end is anywhere in sight. Just good vibrations all around, and an eager anticipation for the next show. Not feelings that this was the last.