Phil Lesh & Friends, The Beacon Theater, NYC- 2/15
NYC ROLL-TOP: Phil Lesh and the Dot-Dot-Dots
Civilians have no idea, and probably even think it's kind of funny. I mean, imagine how it looks in the newspaper: 65-year old bassist for '70s-peaking '60s rock behemoths rolls into town with a bunch of dudes whose names are probably totally unfamiliar to you if you didn't who the bassist was to begin with (and a singer you maybe remember from a few years back). And that's actually all well and good, because it meant that Deadheads could show up on nearly any of once-and-future Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's eight nights in Manhattan and scoop up half-price tickets for $30 or so.
Before moving 40 blocks downtown for a three-day weekend at the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom (nearly across the street from Madison Square Garden), Lesh and company closed out a five evening residence at the almost-brokedown palace of the Beacon Theater on Wednesday, February 15th. At least when hippies are around, the well-appointed Beacon — replete with murals and gigantic gladiators and goddesses — is the last gloriously pre-9/11 venue of its size left in Manhattan: no ticket scanners, no patdowns, no bag searches, no metal detectors, and ushers with authentic New Yawk character who tend to go with the flow. After all, they probably figure, if the terrorists are bothering to attack the Deadheads, they’ve won a long time ago, so why not party like it’s 1999? Or, perhaps more accurately, 1974?
Over more than three hours of music, Phil's Friends demonstrated why, despite a constantly changing membership and ignoring the fact that they aren't quite as good as the last time they came to New York, they were (for all intents and purposes) the same band Lesh has been playing with for the past eight or so years. Despite Lesh's presence, the outfit remains essentially a tribute to the Dead in the mid-'70s whose main creative challenge (besides, y'know, playing well) is making (and adapting) music that is aesthetically true to the Dead's peak: sweetly galloping country-rock cut with jazz chords and white boy blues, alternating with monstrously psychedelic fusion jams (but where's Ned Lagin?)
On their fifth night, Lesh's quartet rumbled to life with "Passenger," from 1977's Terrapin Station. Guitarist Larry Campbell — who served as Bob Dylan’s most sensitive technician since Robbie Robertson between 1997 and 2004 — soloed strongly, though wrapped up his phrases after every chorus as if expecting the band to jump in with the next verse. Eventually, Lesh led the band down into the evening’s first jam, drippy and purposeful as he called out chord changes through the monitor system. The jam — which eventually found its way into "Doin’ That Rag" — introduced a few more of Lesh’s Friends: senior Friends keyboardist Rob Barraco (employing only his "acoustic piano" setting, at least on this night) and Bay Area guitarist Barry Sless (who, when on electric guitar, mostly convincingly played the role of Jerry Garcia).
Playing at somewhat sluggish tempos, the rest of the set was a bit of a mixed bag: "Doin' That Rag" was tagged with one of the evening's four lovely and ragged a capella codas sung by Lesh, Barraco, and vocalist Joan Osborne; "Stagger Lee" recalled the uncomfortable largesse of the Dead’s twin-drummer ’80s configuration; "The Hardest Part," one of the half-dozen distinctly Dead-like Adams songs Lesh has introduced into his repertoire of late was a welcome "why not?" curiosity; "The Weight" filled the role of the unnecessary classic rock cover (and the delightfully stentorian Lesh didn’t even get a verse!); and "Cosmic Charlie" led into the Deadheads’ intermission/social hour.
The second set demonstrated why Phil Lesh and Friends are worth seeing. Opening with a meticulous jam that built from nothing into a major key romp that could've easily turned into "China Cat Sunflower," the band veered deliciously into the minor-key disco alley of "Shakedown Street." Across the set, the band's jamming ranged from mind-numbing to exhilarating, but always worth paying attention to. Stepping to the pedal steel, Sless employed a magical tone that fit perfectly into Lesh's sound while bringing something new to the table. Throughout the set, the band employed Lesh's patented Friends technique: long, adventurous improvisations that frequently reached conceptual cul-de-sacs that seemingly required the band to disintegrate to nothing and start anew, more akin to an ellipsis than a segue mark on a setlist.
The best of these jams appeared unexpectedly out of "Cats Under the Stars," a Jerry Garcia solo tune hardly known for its psychedelic properties. But there they were. Most importantly, drummer Jeff Sipe finally came alive. Sipe should be the perfect drummer for Lesh, schooled equally in Americana from Leftover Salmon, deep fusion/prog roots from the ultra-dense Hellborg, Lane, and Sipe, and weirdness via Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.) and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. For most of the night, though, Sipe (like Campbell) still seemed to be getting comfortable with the idea of playing Grateful Dead music, keeping the backbeat going during songs and dropping the snare in favor of ambient cymbal crashing during the spaciest of jams. In "Cats Under the Stars," Sipe loosened up and danced with the band, contributing elegantly angular patterns as they pushed off. Barraco and Campbell traded fragments of a mysterious melody as if were trying to remember it before locking into complementary lines. Sipe dropped out altogether, leaving all four musicians playing interlocking leads. Eventually, there was probably another dot-dot-dot, but the moment had been found.
The rest of the performance built back up from that point: Ryan Adams' "Magnolia Mountain" featured another Sipeless breakdown; Campbell donned the mandolin for a toothless but enticing String Cheese Incident-like calypso jam that built predictably and almost-precisely into "Uncle John's Band"; Osborne, whose voice and presence in Lesh's band remains most welcome, delivered "Morning Dew," the folk revival ballad (later inadvertently rephrased by Sun Ra in four-and-a-half words: "nuclear war, it's a motherfucker"); and the band dusted off a few more sunshiny those-were-the-days anthems, including "Truckin'" (duuuuuude!), "The Golden Road" (wheeee!), and "I am the Walrus" (you'd think the whole "smoke pot! smoke pot!"/"oompa oompa" outro chant would be a natural for the Deadheads, especially at the Beacon, but the band dropped it).
So, yeah, it was a band led by the dorky-ass bassist of a band who went around the bend a long time ago, but, but, but — well — dotdotdot…
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com..