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Published: 2006/07/20
by Randy Ray

Phil Lesh & Friends / GRAB (Gordon, Russo, Anastasio, Benevento)Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Sarattoga, NY 7/2, New England Dodge Music Theater, Hartford, CT 7/3

The obligatory three-line quote to frame the 3-D portrait on the wall
“Three, sir.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC, mac) 7/2/06

*The obligatory prelude for your viewing and dancing pleasure *
Random Silly Songs in the Key of Threeafter all of my planning, I managed to catch three gigsI stayed in three statesUpstate New York, Connecticut and New JerseyI caught a strong gig with, by fortuitous chance, our site editor and his talented columnist and mathematicianzzyzx and I invented three ridiculous dances to go along with the swirling web of GRAB soundIn the middle of my trip, I visited Tom Marshall for the third time in three monthsPhil Lesh is three times as old as many in the crowd and he’s got three times the energyTrey Anastasio could have played three sets in Hartfordfirst time since Coventry?but rather than the obligatory two set headliner slot, played one long set with the Duo and Mike Gordon after a full second set with LeshI could have written three reviews but, alas, one of my seniors (experience, not age) covered the trgig quite wellin three weeks, my wife will give birth to two boys giving us a grand total ofplaypausestopthree sons. I began this two-headed review at 3AM (a coincidence (most people), a convergence (Jarnow) or a synchronicity (Ray)) about a week ago(or was it three nights ago at 3AM and finishing after three hours or was it three false starts at 3AM three minutes ago?)next year, the Year of Our Jam Lord, What If PHISH Play Again is 20072+7=9; 9 is divided by three three times

The Benevento/Russo Duo
The Duo played a thirty-minute set filled with the old and new in front of a sparse SPAC house. While foregoing their late night summer fest cosmic explorations played in front of a knowledgeable and very friendly crowd, the platoon o’ two offered edible morsels of songs that are featured on their new album, Play Pause Stop and nuggets from their initial release without straying too far from the melodic canon. Quite frankly, the Duo appeared to want to familiarize the crowd with their material while, hopefully, offering something fresh and permanent in virgin B/R skulls. Benevento was polite and accomplished on keys and crowd quips while Russo played tight but loose and loud on drums. No jams, but a slice of what could be quite a cool little ride. I’m not sure if this approach worked. The lack of a peak within a half hour segment cannot be faulted too much given the time allotted and when material is unfamiliar to the majority. Still, to my mind, that’s when a band should really go over the top and stretch the boundaries rather than just appear as two dudes playing brief instrumentals.

Then the fun really began. The brief two week tour of sheds on one coast with three generations of hyperactive jambands was not without its strange sights (Audience members constantly asking me if I knew who The Duo was and what kind of music they played“uh, I think it’s like P-Funk with around 23 musicians laying down the groove.” Trey and Gordo coming out to a half-filled house in the daylight?!) but the sliding wheel of time from the young puckish Duo to the twin towers of jam kingdom in the persons of Anastasio and Gordon on down the line to the behemoth Mt. Rushmore figure of Mr. Bass Great, Lesh Filling was sublimely smooth, technically hoodwink jangly and deliciously unpredictablethe very traits this genre was allegedly founded upon.

“Drifting” began the show and it proved to be a rip-roaring, epic, crowd-pleasing tension and release headbanger. Nice start. “Plasma” was slow, funky and patiently metamorphoric with its heady line of “you always end up where you start”a James Joycean phrase that should be uttered thrice for effect. This song offered the initial shot of Anastasio and Benevento bouncing licks betwixt each otherwith their heads pointed down like two rams in the glorious split second frozen moment before impact. After the opening two numbers, Anastasio voiced his enthusiasm to the crowd and his joy at being back at SPAC. The once sparse crowd was beginning to line the seats and grass in between occasional Sarasota Springs rain showers (apocalyptic at first and, then, as quickly as they come, the rain endsI’m from the mild West Coast, dig). “Mud City is a ballsy rock in mid-period Stonesy meets a Physical Graffiti Zep tune with Benevento really thrashing out a chunky solo and rattling away on heavy clavinet. Russo as he would throughout the brief G.R.A.B. run really kicked the collective group in the ass while pushing the tempo upstage front and center. Again, Anastasio and Benevento developed a solid rhythm rapport with their penchant for funk groove templates, and, well, writing about the brilliance and 2006 MVP status of Mike Gordon may appear a bit superfluous but Gordon was rock bottom brilliant. Just to see his familiar head bob next to Treyalthough their Zones were flip-flopped on stageput a grin on my dancin’ fool face.

The title track from the new Duo album, Play Pause Stop offered rich ambient trance and a great riff from Benevento while Anastasio dug in for a wee bit of a digital delay loop before busting loose with a rotating solo near the song’s coda which was a thing of beauty and transformed the track into memorable mind candy. “Suskind Hotel” featured Russo in his most transcendent Bonham percussion pose as he lifted the band and crowd into a pounding euphoria before initiating a cool little semi-circle power trio with Gordon and Anastasio nestled next to the juggernaut drummer. This rocker segued into “Dragonfly,” written by the Phish twins plus the Duo in Brooklyn earlier this year with a seamless falling apart, coming together again power riff. Anastasio then played a request for an audience member in the front row“Sweet Dreams Melinda.”

“Get Back” by, of course, the other Fab Four was played and filled me with a mixture of glee and melancholythis tune was, after all, played in the final performance of the Beatles on the rooftop decades ago and it always seems to offer a dual messageMcCartney’s desire to return to the band to its roots and Lennon’s ease with the music of the 50s but tangled ambitions wrought of the 60s. I’m not trying to compare Beatle Paul and John with Beatle Mike and Trey, but the similarities are there when our generation spent many a summer following these cats from the Garden to Coventrythe anti-Garden of all time.

“Mr. Completely”a solo Anastasio (TAB, circa 2001-03) song was only played once by Phish in Utah on summer tour 2003 but it was one of those if you only had to play a song once, play it like the world is coming to an end’ versions. This number more than any other in the shows I caught featured the most unified dynamics within a group mind. Whereas much of the set was enjoyable and earthshaking, there were times when Benevento seemed more in awe of his bandmates than exploratory (I have no such complaint with Russo as he was potent and confident). “Mr. Completely” was glorious Phish meet Zeppelin, circa 1975 on “Trampled Underfoot” as the jam was over-the-top with superhuman time changes and tempo flipslike the Bonnaroo Super Jam which started it allthis was clearly the band’s big workout and they pummeled every sublime edge into the ground. The remaining highlight occurred when the band decided to end their set with “Who Are You.” AgainI had to internally scratch my head at the humor and appropriateness of this particular songwho the fuck are you, anyway? Also, the 1978 Who gem is the theme from the top-rated _CSI_a show about investigating dead bodies while offering really cool visual effects. Scene of the crimeis the Phish corpse dead? Half dead? Resting? Who killed IT? Does that really matter?

Phil Lesh and Friends (This Year’s Model : John Molo on drums and skull, Rob Barraco on keys, headband, vocals, Joan Osborne, vocals, Greg Osby, sax, Barry Sless, steel guitar, Larry Campbell on guitar, mandolin, violin and Bob Dylan on the Resume vibe and Mr. Lesh on bass and behind the Winnebago wheel)

The first set featured a crunching opener with “Let the Good Times Roll” segueing beautifully into a jugband version worthy of the Mother Mac from the early 60s of “Sittin’ on Top of the World” with Campbell on violin. Trey Anastasio came out for “Althea” and that version cemented a very strong yet short first set.

Set 2 began with two bummer-oriented songs that also help to healthe Altamont lament “New Speedway Boogie” which gave way to “He’s Gone” (I assume that I wasn’t the only one who thought of Vince Welnick two or three times during this rendition). Alrightenough of the remorse as the band then dove into “Uncle John’s Band” which was transparently elliptic and followed with quite a one-two punch (and inspired choices) of the cosmic groove of “Unbroken Chain” and the circular tension-and-release of “Morning Dew”another Garcia standout track handled with precision and grace by Lesh and the band. Anastasio returned for “The Wheel>Not Fade Away” conclusion and stayed on stage for the encore of “Casey Jones,” which didn’t have the bite of the version at Bonnaroo with Gordon and the Duo but it still satisfied.

If it appears that I gave more attention to Anastasio and company’s set at SPAC, it is only that their performance was anticipated with slightly more concern in my noggin as I had seen Lesh at the Warfield with this lineup.

Overall? This was a very strong set of three different generations of jam music with three various sets of improvisatory magic that went down very well in the old Upstate New York venue. We had been hoping for a return to 1999 when the Dead met Phish, yielding the beautiful version of Phil Lesh & Friends that included Anastasio and Page McConnell and, instead, we got something new, different and challenging and that’s pretty fucking high on my list. It rained but that never stopped anyone, did it?

New England Dodge Music Theater (Meadows, brah) 7/3/06

Soul Shakedown Street Party in Olde New England

Aha classicno separation between bands as three became one like the intoxicating strands of the Nassau Tweezer melting into Trey’s echoing pedal at the end of the 2/28/03 gemsoul shakedown party, indeed. By happenstance, I was also in the same row as our site editor and a columnist/Phish stat guru so the stars were aligned with the planets and the table was set for a buffet, ya dig?

The Duo played their first gig in Hartford, Connecticut to a receptive crowd as Benevento was again in good spirits and Russo was thunderous throughout the mini setscenic instrumental terrain with Valhalla shouting as Benevento would quip in a proper British accent (of course) “a little bit of a singalong” and the Duo sped through a meaty 30-minutes that balanced improv with tangible hooks and Italian funk. (Sidenote: best shirt at the gigs? “Mike and the Italians” as a green-red-and-white pizza design.) The new material sounds expansive and they did their best in the time allotted without any of the frills, no doubt, but engaging the small crowd, nonetheless. Alas, merely a prelude as the Duo plus Mike and Trey were to close this summer evening show.

Lesh and his gang followed. The band played another brief late model GDish opening set with the highlight being Barry Sless on steel guitar on the always welcome Mars Hotel chestnut “Pride of Cucamonga”it had been seven years to the day since I had seen Lesh break out this tune at the Warfieldand it has grown in new directions quite well in its brief live life. Set II is where we got the rare sight and sounds of Trey Anastasio sitting in with the band for the entire duration. And Lesh picked a grand, eclectic old school setlist with a couple of wonderful nods to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan thrown in for tasty measure.

“Shakedown Street” opened the set and everyone was dialed in and ready for action on stage as the venue had filled up quite quickly. A bit of Lesh-led “Feedback” circled neatly into “Caution” and the band charged right through the riff passages and eventually returned into “Feedback” without a moment’s hesitation. The momentum of the set at this point was quick, seamless and breathtaking considering that although Anastasio has recently played with the members of the Dead in various settings, he, obviously, doesn’t get to rehearse with these offshoots too often. “Candyman Blues” bumped into a full-on gorgeous, crowd sing-a-long take of “Candyman” with Anastasio handling Garcia’s vocals.

After that bit of back-and-forth, “Viola Lee Blues” was wheeled out and leapt off the stretcher to reveal a whole new skin. Quite frankly, this incredible sequence rocked very hard with moments of high jamming and group mind communication. “Viola Lee” served as an in-and-out burger with the aforementioned “Shakedown” making the proverbial doorway and renaissance in between segments one and two with “Bertha” inserted in the middle of the second and third passages without any shift in the gears or loss of speed or pause for setlist explanation for the masses. This passage (along with the New Jersey show on 7/1/06) served as a tour mindbender as the band circled again and again through various layers of jam while using the three songs as a very sturdy anchor. “Midnight Hour” encored and the crowd wondered en masse: “How will the boys follow that?!”

It goes without saying that one look at shows that the setlists from the Duo and Trey and Mike were not that diverse on this tour. The band chose to insert improvisation into songs rather than sets i.e. Led Zeppelin’s evening twists with the same songs albeit with varying light-and-shade nuances rather than the Grateful Dead’s grab bag of this show may be crap on paper but it sure sounded sweet on tape’ (or visa versa).

“Plasma” began but soon drifted into “Drifting,” which was, again, extremely smoking with various levels of jams from a very tight band on a very open and up, up and away tune. Gordon and Anastasio were locked as one as Benevento colored the edges and Russo hammered the point home again and again that they were having a hell of a good time playing this little Trey solo gem. “Mud City” rocked as the band escalated the tempo to match the heightened cadence of the opening duo of songs. This was quite a sterling trio as they left no doubt that they planned on completing the excellent evening, thus far, on a very high note.

I had mentioned “Goodbye Head” as a hopeful set insertion earlier in the evening and, to my delight, the Duo plus the phamous two sliced an incredible version from a standing point which also featured arguably a third member of Phish in the person of Chris Kuroda who was his old reliable self during the shows but was a particular highlight during this psychedelic King Crimson meets Trey Anastasio by way of “Reba” bit of jam delight. After the intricacy and trance-like ecstasy, the band segued into “Get Back” followed by the ubiquitous “Shine,” which contained a scorching solo from Anastasio albeit not before enduring a cigarette lighter held high by the aforementioned stat man during the opening riff (such is the fate of that often-discussed topic of Clarity versus Jam Odyssey).

“Hap-Nappy” had Gordon on rubbery funk bass guitar and lead vocals with Benevento contributing sax sound effects on keys on this new number. Another Trey solo track “Spin” followed and was going down quite well until it hit a Gordon-led jam passage for another set peak as the band threw out their carefully-scripted notes and went for the edge of the universe and succeeded in their very trippy and exploratory journey.

“Mr. Completely” was the clear frontrunner again for best song of the night as the band really nailed every possibility in Hartfordexplosive, open, challenging, intense, inventive and quite a crowd rouser. McCartney’s Abbey Road-like pastiche “Uncle Albert” followed with Gordon on lead vocals and Anastasio again on fitting megaphone during the interlude. The back-and-forth tidbits of the song segued into an energetic version of “Stuck in the Middle with You” as the band caught the humor and nuances of the classic rock vibe while making the song its own. “Dragonfly” finished the trio with Gordo pulling on the rubber bass and the set ended as a stringent curfew negated an encore.

Final thoughts? I lost a pound at SPAC and three in Hartford so as the saying goes: “The Dancin’ Foo just don’t lie, mo fo.” Plus, for those that thought that the Duo with half of Phish was an overrated commodity prior to the gigs, the proof was that the explored textures warranted the interest and offered an intriguing question. If a band jammed with a similar setlist each night, could they find interesting audio geography, pure joy and timeless creativity which would inspire a critical audience to return again and again?

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