Phil Lesh and Friends, Warfield Theatre, San Francisco, CA 5/19
Prologue Rest in Peace Larry “Ram Rod” Shurtliff
“He’d spent enough time riding shotgun with Neal [Cassady]“More bennies, Rod”to be far from straight, but he was still a rock, the quiet, honest man who over the next years would become an internal balance for the band.” – A Long Strange Trip, Dennis McNally
By the time I arrived in San Francisco, I was in great spirits as I walked down Market Street to the venue. The ticket for the two-day run was, shall we say, HOT, to put it mildly. Scalper seats for the sold out run ranged from $90 to $150 on the floor, $150 and beyond for the loge and balcony seats. As I came to the entrance, you couldn’t shake a limb without hitting a wayward Wookie finger looking for a miracle ticket. I had no idea how good the scalping and extra ticket action went but I did see the same faces holding their lone fingers aloft late in the eveningstill out front as if someone would fork over their shaggy tickets during the sets and head home in the dark San Francisco night.
The event marked the first time Phil Lesh and Friends were being filmed for a future DVD release and the possibility of famous and non-famous guests aplenty hitting the stage to share space with Lesh and his mates ran very high in the head community. For example, Trey Anastasio was said to be in Northern California at Les Claypool’s abode with Stewart Copeland practicing for the pending Oysterhead gig at Bonnaroo. A quick pre-show text message alerted me to the fact that Trey was definitely not on the West Coast so I was prepared for an evening of fine music with the possibility of no guests whatsoeverBig Red or otherwise. The green velvet backdrop hung from the rear of the stage and that was the only accoutrement inside to signal “special event.” Oh, that and the fact that the place was filled to the gills with teeming heads, old and new, while the humidity appeared to weigh a bloody ton. Lesh came out on stage and the Dead bassist dedicated the show to longtime GD crew member, Ram Rod who had passed away two days prior. As a matter of fact, both of the Warfield shows were played in honor of the fallen Dead icon and it gave the events an added warm hue of poignant pathos.
Set I The Road Lesh & Friends Traveled
The gentleman on my left in the balcony called “Passenger” as the set opener and we quickly exchange high fives while I pondered his ESP skills. It was a perfunctory opening number that was a joy to hear but the real buzz began with the opening thunderclap riff of “Viola Lee Blues.” The band soon charged into the psychedelic stratosphere and pretty much stayed there for the remaining portion of the set. The old chestnut was long, sinewy and full of the breathless improvisation during its mid-point spatial peak that makes one remember why traveling to a Dead show was never given a second thought. This was all IT and X-factor and the toxic sound became even more luxurious when the band seamlessly segued into a very hard and fast “Cumberland Blues.” The end of this fabulous duo of a different flavor had the crowd on its feet for several moments as Lesh acknowledged the resounding cheers with one of his patented “Aw, shucks” grins. This was one of those highlights you drag along with you during the long summer tours to remind your ears what is music, per se, and what is really strong live music being played by musicians thoroughly drenched in the eternal NOW. Led by Lesh, of course, on bombing bass runs and vocals, the band consists of Larry Campbell on guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, fiddle and vocalsa longtime member of Dylan’s touring band and one of the guitarists on St. Bob’s 2001 album, _Love and Theft_John Scofield, also on six-shooter guitar, the expert keys and vocals of Rob Barraco, the returning percussion champ, John Molo, Greg Osby on a sweet saxophone and the always welcome dynamic vocal range of Joan Osborne. If SUPERGROUP is the buzzword of 2006, this band certainly qualifies for that term as much as G.R.A.B., Oysterhead, Derek and Slowhand
Lesh slowed things down a tad with a sublime reading of “Fennario” with Campbell on mandolin trading off brilliant melodic lines with Osborne as the old Garcia favorite was given a new skin. Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” with Osborne on vocals was muscular but the transition into “New Speedway Boogie” was just as breathtaking as the aforementioned “Blues>Blues” glorious twin duo. Scofield and Campbell, as they did throughout the opening set, played various layers of six string call-and-response that added punctuation, took away sentences and paragraphs and laid down pages and pages of stream-of-conscious riff magic that lifted the rhythm and spun it around like some sort of mad, electric flying burrito. (I was a little hungry at this point.) Indeed, Scofield and Campbell echoed, emphasized and enhanced each other’s licks so often that to write down all of their peaks would require too many pens for my sagging pockets to carry. The segue between “Watchtower” and “Speedway” also contained a very trippy and delicious instrumental tease of War’s “Low Rider” theme that sailed in and out of the transition with minute grace as they effortlessly floated into the latter number and its subsequent lyric commentary about that fateful day back in December 1969 at Altamont Raceway in Northern California.
Suddenly, the songs ends and Lesh lectures the band for quite a while so I immediately think: “Hmmminterestingcomplex Lesh number?let’s see
Perhaps, Lesh’s most underrated song over the years, the pearl written in 1974 for the Dead’s From the Mars Hotel album wasn’t played live for two decades. When the gem finally made its debut in one of those Mother of All Breakout evenings at the Philadelphia Spectrum in March 1995, the roof damn near caved in on the old hockey joint. “Unbroken Chain” began its slow journey without anything special but when the famous interlocking riff commenced its drunk man following down a flight of stairs’ portion of the tapestry, the band stretched out for a very intense jam that lifted higher and higher and higher until everyone was flying throughout the scorching hot building in one of those legendary Dead moments that Lesh has been a part of so many times in his illustrious career, I looked around and massive grins and laughter and beaming arcs of pure euphoria filled the theatre like the greatest Cheshire cat smile one can imagine: ramshackle glory draped in an utterly spirited brilliance with an incredibly beautiful and perfectly improvised slow jam at the masterpiece conclusion.
Setbreak Everyone Was Flying
“when they finally turned that corner in some long sequence. Garcia would be flyingLesh, Weir, Bill, Mickey, everyone would be flying.” – The Road Lesh Traveled, Jambands.com column, May 2006
Life is a circle and with every lofty peak, there must be a valley to restore balance in our mathematically precise zzyzx universe. I think I read that in one of those I Learned Everything I Know From the Words Written on the Bathroom Wall books. Wellthis one ranks as one of the more bizarre doozies in my long concert career. The gentleman next to me during the first set perhaps felt that Nirvana edge a little too personally and during the setbreak decided to run from the stairs, leap on the loge railing and dive with his arms stretched out first as an airplane and then back together like an Acid Test Superman. Fortunately and very unfortunately, a handful of audience members were standing on the floor below and broke his fall and femur. I went backstage to check the damage. All people were blessed and walked away without any major injuries but this episode delayed the set for at least another 60 minutes and completely reminded everyone about the fine line between hard-earned perfection and total mindless catastrophe.
Set II Grateful Dead Greatest Hits from the Phil Zone
By the time Lesh and his band hit the stage for the second set, all positive energy seemed to be sucked out of the building for obvious reasons after the surreal airborne launch. The band tried to make amends with a perfect-setlist-on-paper series of numbers that all worked but failed to generate the same buzz that had lifted the audience into the next galaxy in the opening set. Quite frankly, a large portion of my shattered mind which had only had a beer and a couple of Wild Turkey shots was so downcast and sober and worried about the injured patrons that it was hard for me to grasp the music being played. They were damn good, don’t get me wrong, but part of the job of being a critic is doing your research while being honest, fair and open-minded, knowing your vibe, the audience group mindset and the ethereal temperature check within the complicated biorhythms of a heady crowd. ALL temp check scores were negative but we endured and the music helped heal a stunned and still buzzing Warfield audience.
“Uncle John’s Band” was played with bluegrass passion with Campbell on mandolin before the band slid into a thoroughly intoxicating run with the goosebump majesty of “Eyes of the World”again, with Campbell standing out on vocals. “Eyes” segued into a truly epic run of songs that kept the entire portrait as one long continuous set. “St. Stephen>The Eleven>Caution” echoed some of the great Dead Fillmore shows of ’69 and ’70 before toppling into an unexpected and brilliant set closing placement of “Help>Slip>Frank” that had the audience once again on their feet and attempting to reach that splendid arc of the opening set. A fine set that in any other circumstance would’ve sealed the deal on a classic show but I was still numb while thinking about my erstwhile seat neighbor who had taken the ill-advised plunge injuring others along the way.
Epilogue The Dark Box of Gloomy Rain
“Cowboy Neal was at the wheel” – “The Other One,” Grateful Dead
Did I mention it rained on this evening? Fitting, eh? Anywaythe encore stretched out into a full-on mini third set after Lesh’s donor rap and band introductions. “The Other One” charged into the second verse of “Dark Star” closing the sandwich that had been opened the previous evening before returning to “The Other One” which led into a tear jerking and very soothing bit of Lesh reassurance called “Box of Rain.” If this review appears to end with a silent sigh, it is only symbolic of the fact that I walked out of the theatre and up the haunting street towards my hotel in a stupor as I neither attempted to assimilate or think much about what had just happenedmankind in all of its beautiful and wretched gloryin the end, an accurate portrait of who we are in full 4-D.