Phil Lesh & Friends, Nokia Theater, NYC – 11/6 & 11/11
Like many of the Lesh faithful, I've seen every lineup of Phil & Friends that the erstwhile Dead bassist has trotted out since around early 2000all the lineups he's brought to East Coast markets, anyway, with ample hours spent digesting recordings of the other.
Like many of those same faithful, I'm not sure I've ever gotten over the Phil Lesh Quintet. Two or three years into its inception, that Lesh/Haynes/Herring/Barraco/Molo lineup was a beast: fearless, unpredictable, jangly, out-there and boasting those gorgeous, malleable three-part harmonies between Warren, Phil, and Rob Barraco. The band had its detractors, but by 2002 it was a mesmerizing coagulate of flavors: all the usual Phil hallmarks and the protean Molo drumwork bouncing off Barraco's sparkling piano and the spacier, frenetic Herring guitar yin to Warren's meatier, bluesadelic yang. Let's just say I've spent more than a few hours extracting gold nuggets from the Phil vault on archive.org.
Most Phil gigs have at least one 15 minute segment of pure cosmic release; those shows had two or three, easy, and sometimes the entire, three-plus-hour night was transcendent from beginning to end. And there were originals: The Q managed an album that despite a few clunkers had at least two or three great songs, plus unearthed chesnuts like "Liberty."
Did it have to end? A question for another day, and largely moot, for that lineup was also a byproduct of circumstances. Both guitarists, for one, were in tricky transitional periods, and Warren, Jimmy, and Rob have since settled into career choices that put them at the top of their games. And, of course, Phil decided about three years ago that he'd dispense with a set lineup; I remember so clearly hearing his scholarly explanation as I interviewed him for a February 2006 feature, discussing the changing demands of the music.
Which brings us to the November, at the Nokia, in New York City, and the first Phil shows since the Q that left me with utter excitement for the "new" instead of measured appreciation but pervasive nostalgia for the "old."
What intrigued me most when the personnel were first announced was the return by Phil to a streamlined roster. Lesh is one of five players, with one principal vocalist, a versatile keyboardist, a guitar tandem that, to use a baseball analogy, is more finesse pitchers than gas throwers, and that rock of solid rocks, John Molo, behind the kit.
Sure, there are no ostensible bells and whistles: no alt-country badboys (except for two other nights at the Nokia), no ostensible jazzmen filling the Branford Marsalis crossover role, no former alternative rock staples, no members of Phish. What's left is a significantly R&B-flavored outfit with psychedelic overtones and the lots-of-covers/lots-of-fun aesthetic of a great bar band, tethered to the Grateful Dead but also hinging on the serious talents of one Jackie Greene. Thus, in a way, the band is Phil's most adventurous yet: trying to find the magic with a somewhat disparate collection of youngsters and vets that discovered, as they played more and more nights together, they weren't so disparate after all.
The lineup did seem both tentative and refreshing; as much as the stacked Friends groups could cover each other's mistakes and really flesh out the music—a multi-guitar/multi-keys/sax horde can really drive a song like "Eyes of the World" into the stratosphere—they could also make for some serious clutter (using Dead-style "gestalt linkage" to burrow into the "Dark Star" ether is one thing; too many voices fighting for space when no one's on the same page is another entirely).
Either way, what I heard on the tapes from this tour got me excited with reserved, and what I saw and heard at the Nokia, at the midpoint of the run and at the very end, was marvelous, potent stuff, indeed. All is right with the Phil Lesh world.
In the first of my shows, there was nothing particularly penetrating until an "Other One > Death Don't Have No Mercy > Other One" sandwich at the end of the second set that had so much heft it shook and devastated the whole theater (and probably gave the Lion King folks upstairs at the Minskoff one more thing to complain about).
Outside of that progression was a lot of high-energy, cursory fun with singalong choruses to grab hold of and hug tightly: a passionate "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," an easy grooving "Cosmic Charlie" to close the first set, a crowd-pleasing run from "Brown Sugar" and "Shakedown" onward with lots of "yeahs" and "alrights" and "woos" to start set two, and a stoking "Not Fade Away" encore.
No matter what tempo or key, the band was in the mood for barroom swings and dirty boogies—everything would seem to lead back to one, whether it was as close to form as an expansive, gassed-up "Deal" that bled out of "Bertha," or the more calming interlude of Jackie's "Gone Wandering," or the fizzy Steve Molitz-led funk jam out of "Shakedown" that suggested "Truckin'" and then decided on Beatles ("Revolution"). "Beat It On Down the Line" was great fun—a first timer for the group—after which Phil needed a piss break, Jackie messed around on drums with Molo, and in doing so the band called off the night's slighter amusements and prepped for a brawnier stretch.
Phil likes to take his time getting from the sunnier, slightly ominous "Cryptical" into the "Other One" maelstrom, but I don't think I've heard a Friends performance where he let the rumble build and build and build, coming back and forth to the microphone no less than four times before finally committing. Each time the dam was about to break, he let it swell just a bit more, to the point where Campbell, Greene and Molitz each were looking at him with excited smiles, waiting for the drop as intently as the crowd.
When it did burst, it was a boom, and the whole room was aglow, and the band took its time winding out of the storm, headed into the gritty, sunken aftermath: a Jackie-sung "Death Don't Have No Mercy." Greene's choices with the tune were remarkable. Rather than try to bring the howling terror of a vocalist with Pigpenesque or Haynesian heft—and thus risk unfortunate comparison—he dialed his own singing voice down into a drawled, slowly creeping form of dread and resignation.
The other repeat between the two performances I saw, and so welcome as such, was "Brokedown Palace," and I'll say without hesitation that Greene's vocal treatment of the tune is the best ever by a member of Phil & Friends, and possibly since Garcia.
Greene's voice isn't ideally suited to all songs in the Dead canon, but to hear him work over the country weepers is to be moved. It's the lilts that make it; just as much has rightly been made of Ryan Adams' pained phrasing in "Wharf Rat," Greene takes gentle, yet pointed hold of phrases like "except you alone" and "a bed in the waterside" that tug the heart insistently and hum beautifully. If sadness can radiate, this was radiant sadness.
As "Brokedown" always does, it came in both shows at make-or-break moments: on 11/6, the end of that brutalizing second set "Other One" sandwich, and on 11/11, the last song at the end of a three set blowout, the last night of a 10-night residency, and the last night of the tour. It killed both times.
I'll say without hesitation or qualification that the November 11 finale was one of the finest, tightest, loudest, nuttiest, and most satisfying Phil Lesh & Friends shows I've ever been a part of, and the single best I've seen since the days of the Q. It was one of those nights where almost everything clicked, and anything that didn't click immediately was at least interesting enough to keep the energy level high. The third set alone—with it's frequent twists and turns, mood currying, and dramatic surges and calming plateaus—seemed a panorama of everything this group can do, a microcosm of the identity it's developed since the tour started a month and a half ago.
The first set was up to par with the standards this PLF crew had set, designed to excite with familiarity, not experiment, and create frissons, from "Golden Road" to the lilting "Chest Fever" and the strolling bittersweetness of "Candyman." "Bird Song" was pleasant enough despite an aimlessness in its jam segmentyou could tell the band knew where it wanted to end up but couldn't decide on how to get there, so they reined in any spaciness and leaned into a satisfying "Sugaree." The feeling at the end? Good, but not "last night of a run and a tour" weight just yet, so it was little surprise when Phil announced, as his bandmates left the stage, another all-acoustic Set 2 experiment was coming up next.
The second set transported the whole vibe to Grand Ole Opry central. Phil even dressed for the occasion: walking out last in dramatic fashion while sporting the much-ballyhooed vintage nudie suit that was just appropriate and welcome enough to not seem ridiculousa slice of Dead nostalgia that wasn't at all lost on the crowd.
There was another microphone stand set up next to Campbell, and behind it emerged his wife, singer Teresa Williams, for the balm of "Attics of My Life." The second song, "Til the Morning Comes" was the night's only misfire, feeling like an underehearsed breakout for breakout's sake where a more appropriately chosen song might have fit better (still, the one-two punch of "American Beauty" chestnuts had a certain symmetry—and "Beauty"/"Workingman's Dead" did offer the core of the evening's songs). The rest of the set was hypnotic: bluegrass that danced ("Jerusalem Ridge"), country blues that crackled ("Deep Elem Blues"), and a campfire hymn that heartened even as it knew it was going to ("Ripple").
Beginning with a venue-organized, crowd-led toast to Phil, Set 3 was the game-changer, and above all, the feeling throughout was one of rollicking abandon, with a stopover (around "Dark Star jam > Morning Dew") into poignancy. After a gorgeous "Peggy-O" that saw Jackie melting hearts, Larry singing with surprising tenderness and the best use of Williams' gossamer harmonies, the band decided it was blowout time, and jumped headlong into a "Cumberland Blues" that positively rocked. This wasn't bluegrass rocking, it was rocking rockingthe tune was heavy and frenetic, with ribbony solos, twisting into a jam that eventually begat "Uncle John's Band" and a nifty choice by Campbell to play the guitar lead on mandolin.
There were plenty of directions to go, and the band seemed to toy with any number of them—descent? ascent? lateral? sprawl?—before climbing into "Cryptical Envelopment." It was a wise shift, and so too was the short, instrumental "Dark Star" break, which if drawn out might have landed too easily in the cosmos with so many more stops to hit before the end of the night. No, they had something else in mind besides a deep-space flight, and it was clear after those first familiar, dirge-y chords, that it was "Morning Dew."
I confess I would have loved to hear what Jackie could do with the tune—especially with his choices on "Death Don't" five nights earlier—but Phil's vocals were even and capable. The jam segment crawled—starry interplay, mostly, between Campbell and Molitz—and then came the first rhythmic pulses, and then Molo kicked up the tempo ever so slightly, and then a bit more, and then a few front row dwellers started dancing, and then the whole crowd got it, and the first chorus of "I Know You Rider" finally broke through, the train barreling out of the tunnel as its headlight grew brighter and brighter.
It might have been the place to stop; it would have made the set a little short by the standards of the run but, well, this was a three-set night and we'd already been treated. But as "Rider" chugged to its final station stop, Lesh looked to Molo and suddenly let the bottom drop outsuddenly in the swirling, rubbery groove of "The Other One."
In the audience, in the front floor section, it was like dropping from a hang-glider ride in the sky into a raging ocean. The buildup continued until Phil finally dropped a capital-B Bomb to officially announce the song and proceed toward its first verse. Like 11/6, the band toyed with the rhythms and jammed hard in the melodic playground, and it seemed as though another split version was in the works. But this time, they veered back toward that churning melody, and wrapped things up with a tidier presentation, recounting "Cryptical" and the "Dark Star" instrumental, and gradually sloping toward major keys that, within about five minutes of transition, yielded the candied opening hook of "Sugar Magnolia." The crowd was going batshit, and rocked forward collectively when another big melody drop cued the "Sunshine Daydream" suffix.
A heavy encore choice ("Unbroken Chain") opened up into a tentative jam that suggested it wouldn't be the last song, and that the band would either go the playful, rollicking route (a la "Not Fade Away" or "Johnny B. Goode"), or stay heavy, meaning "Brokedown" was the choice. The hymn-like, communal spirit that had held the theater during "Ripple" returned. And a beautiful night was complete.
The old hippie standing next to me for much of the show yelled "Thank you, Phil!" and put his arms around passersby whether they liked it or not. His expression—-a mix of satisfaction, drunken mindlessness and the bittersweet taste of everything being over and done with—said it all.