Phil Lesh and Friends, Santa Barbara Bowl, Santa Barbara, CA- 9/22
Rain wasn’t the only stranger to come to southern California last weekend. Five months of drought had been harsh, but was nothing compared to the Phil deprivation that southland fans had suffered for over three years, since the Dead played at Irvine in 2004 (last Phil show was at the L.A. Greek, May 2002). An early morning thunderstorm threatened the opener of Phil and Friends’ fall 2007 tour, but by mid-afternoon, the storm clouds had blown into the neighboring foothills, leaving 4000+ folks at the Santa Barbara Bowl comfy and dry under a bright blue sky.
Fans shouted, “How you doin’, Phil?” as the band took the stage: Phil on bass, John Molo on the drums, Larry Campbell and Jackie Greene on guitar, and Steve Molitz on keys. Phil looked happy and relaxed. No one unfamiliar with the band would have guessed that it was Campbell’s and Greene’s first tour with the ensemble; the crowd received them as their own as they dove headfirst into “The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion,” and a laid-back, bluesy “Loose Lucy.”
From the top of the Bowl, one might swear that Dylan himself (circa 1965) was on stageGreene closely resembles the master with his pencil suit, mussed hair, intense playing, and the reflexive stomp of his pointy-toe boot. The comparison was not merely physical; the first set contained three of Greene’s stark and honest original tunes: the jaunty “So Hard to Find My Way"; a Wallflowers’ “Three Marlenas”-sounding "When You're Walking Away"; and the set closer, "I'm So Gone.” No doubt brought by Campbell from playing with Levon Helm, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” also hailed the chief with Jackie Greene on another set of keys across from Molitz.
A mid-set, Phil-crooned "Bird Song" was the moment when the crowd and band became one, as the sun could be seen setting over the ocean through a screen of eucalyptus. "Tell me all that you know, I'll show you snow and rain," elicited cheers of relief from those who had packed umbrellasjust in case. Phil built the energy into a jam that teased “Scarlet” before plunging into the dark side, the tempo progressively slowing and other instruments disappearing, leaving Molo to finish his solo as if in slow motion.
A bluesy "Sugaree" was the only other jam vehicle of the set, featuring Phil running up and down the stairs of the disco. It, too, felt cut off before it truly got going and was able to hang in space. Set two opened with Campbell on slide and Phil’s straining but familiar vocals on another precipitation tune, "Cold Rain and Snow." The band shone in full for the first time that evening, instruments meshing seamlessly.
Pulled out of thin air was a rocking "Gotta Serve Somebody," in which Greene fully owned such classic Dylan poetic liberties as, "You might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk/Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk." Molitz spun silk on “Prayer for Spanish Harlem,” which also saw Campbell on violin. "New Speedway Boogie" followed, to the delight of the crowd, with the entire bowl chanting, "One way or another, this darkness got to give." Phil powered it straight into "The Other One,” but due to microphone issues or plain old rustiness, became lost up until “the bus came by and I got on…” "Cryptical Envelopment" led into a jam that also might have been stretched out but felt cut short, twisting around a few times, and seeming to lean towards “Into the Mystic," "Scarlet" before they skidded to a stop and changed direction before the opening notes of “Casey Jones.” The real jewel of the set was "Brown Sugar," Jackie’s vocals doing the Stones proud. "Franklin's Tower" heard Phil advising in the true family spirit, "If you get confused, listen to the music play," and led the band into a cartoony "Slipknot!" set closer.
When the band returned for the encore, Phil thanked the audience and said, "We could really feel it," pantomiming the energy and love he felt emanating toward the stage. He introduced the band, joking that Larry played the guitar, violin, steel, and "every other goddamn thing with strings." Molo was introduced as "The Lion King,” before the evening closed with an acoustic "Brokedown Palace."
A band this solid this early on in a tour should be fully insane by the time they end their 29-show tour. The new members bring a fresh outlook and new material as well as treating the classic songs with respect and passion. With their versatility, by the time they reach their nine-show November residence in New York, hopefully they’ll bring the music deeper into the nether realms.