Phil Lesh and Friends, The Beacon Theater, NYC- 2/10 & 2/11
Let's give credit where credit is due. Phil Lesh sold out half of his thirteen date New York tour (regional residency?) well before the first date without announcing a single member of his band; admittedly there were hints about Jeff Sipe on the kit, but no guitar players and no lead singer, and he's selling out 3000 seat theaters? The man has clout- not just for well timed, utterly calm comments on the LMA debacle, which had him looking like a wizened old mystic, or for his eternally generous approach to own music, turning out free soundboard after free soundboard as he does, but because the man know how to pick a band and cultivate a vibe. It's safe to say that while most most love the Q(uintet), it's easy enough to find fans who favor any given line-up from 98 till present (personally, I'm a sucker for the Derek and Warren 99's from the Dylan tour, and the Schneir, Mookie and Barry, Gloria, Jackie and Molo shows from Spring 05). He just has a touch. So even though (because) he returned to the roots of Phil and Friends by not announcing the band in advance, the bass guru had the whole community buzzing weeks in advance with wild rumors of Trey and Warren and Trilok Gurtu, although it seemed likely that the band would in fact be something akin to the New Year's Eve band, featuring Barry Sless, Rob Barraco, Larry Campbell and Joan Osborne- with a few special guests thrown in for good measure. Haven't had this much fun leading up a gig in a long time- kudos.
Of course by show time, most people know the line-up, and others who haven’t heard are still clinging to Warren or Branford. But the lights go down and the band walks out for Ryan Adams’s “New York, New York”, from which the tour takes its name, and not incidentally the first of many, many Ryan Adams songs. Rob’s on vocals and the band is skipping through the number before flipping up into a fully blazing “Throwing’ Stones” jam that drops low just as quickly, falling into a pretty, stretched out space. Larry hits full rhythmic chords, and Phil bends the music in a new direction of rising plateaus as Joan enters from the flanks and the band sets off on a twilight purple “Playing in the Band”. Larry is so much more comfortable with the material, the understanding of the inherent space in the GD catalogue and approach, and Rob is there, utterly gracious, to draw out ideas and complement expressions. Of course, Barry on the other hand, knows right where the music lives, just the right approach to take and how to push it over the edge. His first big annunciation sends the band spinning into a darkly Spanish Jam with flavors of the spice road- a jam that grows dramatically to something akin to a “Terrapin Flyer” but looses shape and expands instead to an echoy, blue vastness.
A little groove now has Joan on space vocals before making gestures at “Truckin’” and “Other One” and giving way to a pulsating, gorgeous ambience. This seems to be the band’s preparation stance, a deep, open, buzzy space, largely unlike most P & F units in that it hangs there filling the room, but without any clear lead or intentional direction- it’s ambient, but thick and plenty stunning. From these still zones, the music swells into short, five minute spontaneous compositions or rises into polished renditions of actual songs, like the ensuing “Cold Roses” in this case. Ryan’s songs are just beautiful, and Joan owns them, and most importantly, Phil plays them like he played “Black Throated Wind” in 73 &74, like he loves them.
After a sexy, gritty “West LA” and a surprise version of “Love the One You’re With,” not to mention a fifty minute set break, the band returns for round two with a fat groove. The music is bright but nasty, and slinks into another welcome surprise, “After Midnight”. Rob is on the B-3, digging down while Phil and Jeff lock up to drive the movement. Soon both Barry and Larry come too to the fore, so that all the leads are simultaneously charging at the same target. The sounds space out, swell and space again, and Rob is there to respond instantly to every little gesture Phil makes- the Q was preternatural in its reactions, and any two members together carry the imprint of that alchemy.
“Bird Song” and “Dark Star” hints serve as the forward to a glorious, emotional “Magnolia Mountain”. Sipe is swinging big drums here, with his third of a second hang time and concussive barrages not so dissimilar from Rodney Holmes. He has a great sense for the jam, for where it is and where it’s going; he anticipates the direction and heads there 4 or 8 bars before everyone else, so that when they arrive, the place is fully realized. By the end, the stage is just glowing.
“I’m heavy like the rocks in the river bed.”
More teases from the central texts precede a very different “Bird Song”. It starts out cosmic and expansive with lots of interplay between the guitarists, but before long Phil lays down a mean line and guides the band into a funky slipstream- this band is simply a good listen packed with interesting ideas and fine details. A long, carefully cultivated jam seems to be headed for “Rider” but as so often happened throughout the evening, falls back to a spacey interlude, which this time opens onto “Unbroken Chain”. From here on out what was a fine show, equal parts space, tightness and excitement, became an inferno continuously fed by Barry Sless. He’s wrestling with the weird timing and rhythm of the jam and the tension is profoundly intense when he shoots out, howling across the night as the band falls in below him- just soaring. Larry is pushed to keep up and turns out his own barrage, skipping and screaming over the breakdowns. Everyone leans into the open space center stage, closes in and just attacks the glory filled post song jam, that passage where Sunshine could knock you to your knees, and they do him proud.
A fun, classically styled “Good Lovin’,” complete with a very cool, dislocated intro, swollen center and hot little breakdown jam, something more reminiscent of Ratdog than Phil and Friends, was so well done and so well received it could have closed the show. Instead, a full “Help” > “Slip” > “Franklin’s”. At the first transition, Phil indicates that it’s Jeff’s turn, and he unleashes out three big fills and let’s the last one fall, sending Phil rocking back with a smile as the band takes the plunge. Barry dominates, so loud and focused, with Rob and Jeff tracing after him; he send waves of ecstasy throughout the room, while Larry grins and guns that little rhythm lick he’s got. And he maintains the fire in “Franklin’s”, picking up it up half way through the song after an exceedingly fun, jangly rhythm jam- again very Ratdog in approach, to bring it all home and close out the night. While the whole show was excellent, this final suite will especially satisfy any “big jam” cravings.
On the second night, the Saturday night in a buzzing Beacon, the band hits the stage with a slick, slow blue jam, just feeling it out for a few minutes before smoothly slipping into “China Cat”. It’s warm, hearty music with nice solos and bass runs, the kind of music that makes the GD songbook so durable. Barry squeezes out a wicked lead into “Rider”, and Larry matches it with a swinging play on Rob’s fills at the end of the classic coupling. A good start.
A light intro with Phil and then Rob trills slowly develops into a heavy, slow “Scarlet” with Phil clearly addressing the long view of the song, as though it would naturally flow into “Fire”. Of course it’s never that simple with the bassist, and he begins to play with new ideas as the stage goes red, pushing Jeff into a strut which tumbles down and gathers itself together again. Now Larry takes the lead, and it’s a bar crawling solo, somewhat gritty, somewhat rowdy. The jam drives into a showier light with Barry at the fore, but quickly dissolves into a moonlit clearing and “Fire” disappears from the horizon. Phil clearly wants a “Wheel” but the transition isn’t working; he draws everyone in to watch and then pushes hard to enter the song. It’s not a pretty moment, but the song itself is kind and rolling as Barry sends out gorgeous slide fills and Joan bops along in time. There is a sense of the ambience looming, but the jam swells instead, and Larry picks a bead and locks onto it, burning as the band comes together beneath him.
Another Ryan Adams song, “Let It Ride,” with more superb soloing from Larry, and an exceedingly fun “Cumberland Blues” with lots of hot-dogging all around and a joyous game of pass the lick going from Barry to Rob to Larry to Phil, bring up the rear of the set. Larry is such an interesting character in this setting because he’s clearly not at heart an improvisational player. He is, however, one mean guitarist steeped in American roots music and so has a different perspective to add. In the fall, the whole band seemed much less imaginative and played from a seriously limited songbook, undoubtedly due to Chris Robinson’s limited vocal range and apparent inability to remember lyrics or use a teleprompter. The songs were very structured, and Larry used a whole range of instruments to color the music. Now that the field seems to have opened up, he’s focusing mostly on guitar and allowing more room in the music. He’s definitely listening closely and watching his band mates closely. Rob, in particular, being the utterly gracious musician that he is, picks up on Larry’s ideas immediately, and his comping helps in the development of the leads.
During set break a hollow body and music stand appear, and then a shaggy head follows: the king of the Beacon has returned, and the masses are pleased to say the least. But the hollow body is important, because Warren plays the entire second set without any effects at all, not a single pedal. The hollow body alone is a different sound for him and in the context of Phil and Friends, where he’s usually a cacophony of squeals and wa-wa’s, he’s suddenly playing a very different role. In “Shakedown” it’s a stripped down Warren playing off Larry, who in contrast seems to be of incredibly varied texture, and it works well. If Larry seemed to thrive with Rob’s attention, he bloomed as Warren constantly traded lines and shared leads.
The jam reprises the “After Midnight” from Friday before rolling, rather than slamming, into “Viola Lee Blues.” Rob is on the organ, just noodling alongside Warren for a while before it all gets raw and nasty at Larry’s behest. Sounds wind down to just the rhythm section, which opens a low, majestic space, and then a sudden, unexpected “Hard to Handle” that sends the whole room flying. Joan is out on the prowl, strutting across the stage while Warren leans back, dropping simmering lines and accents. The song is a scorcher, but dissolves again into space, with Joan adding vocals. It’s pretty and red with Phil guiding. Larry falls back to his distinct little rhythm groove, and the music steps up into the second verse of “Viola Lee Blues”.
A big bass solo, and it’s back into space, violet lights on the stage. The band begins to rock, and Rob is pounding the piano into a fast “Bertha”, which has been his signature Phil and Friends song for years now. The music crumbles yet again, but this time hangs in a jazzy way, with a beautiful lead from Rob. The progression could head towards “Milestones” or “Blue Train”, but Jeff shakes off the vibe and the whole ensemble plummets into a chittering meltdown before Larry tears back to the third verse of “Viola Lee Blues”- a very nice suite of music that would have made a fine set by itself.
Phil straps on Big Brown (so many dials!) for a fantastically dark and gothic “Bartering Lines” with everyone but Phil and Jeff singing. The instrument is just so powerful, it feels like Phil is just barely using it to shake the foundations of the Big Apple’s venerable old room. By the end of the song, the glow on stage is potent and Phil turns around to grind out one shattering note that has Joan plugging her ears on stage. The expected “Caution” rolls through town, Joan on vocals, and Phil is up next to the amps for a true “Feedback”, Warren and Larry skittering crazily about the surface. It’s deep and it’s scary.
The show closes with a mighty, confident “Fire” (a nice close to the “Scarlet” from set I) into “NFA” and everyone is hugging Warren backstage. Barry joins in for a three song encore suite. As are all Beatles’ covers by Phil and Friends, “Strawberry Fields” is an anthem, swollen and bursting at the seams with that buzzing almost ambience. Then Warren steps to the microphone for a surprising “Comes a Time,” a great song played none too often either now or then, into a kicking “Golden Road”. Sometimes Phil knows just how to tip the scales for the encore, to add that last bit of luster. This show was nothing short of massive. The first set was over and hour and a half long, and the second over two hours- for quantity, variety and quality, without question the best thirty to fifty dollar ticket in years. While Sunday night’s show was an adventure in its own right, with absolutely wonderful showboating from Trey, and outrageous versions of “TLEO” > “Cold Rain” Jam > “Loose Lucy” and “Cryptical”, there was something extra special about Saturday.