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Published: 2008/07/20
by Dan Alford

Phil Lesh and Friends, Penns Landing, Philly, PA- 6/20

Penn’s Landing is hands down the ugliest venue in the world. A strip of asphalt on the Delaware Riverfront, it’s surrounded by derelict buildings and scummy inlets choked with tires, trash and shopping carts- across the street there is literally a sign reading “Entire Block For Sale”. It’s certainly not the ideal setting for this summer’s Americana Express Tour, with Levon Helm opening for the Jackie Greene version of Phil and Friends, but when the music was happening, it was almost, almost, possible to ignore the surrounding environs.

Helm’s set was a shorter version of other Ramble on the Road gigs, opening with some classics by The Band, followed by some traditionals and Dirt Farmer songs, and ending with more Band music. It was apparent that Helm’s voice was shot right at the beginning of the opening “Back to Memphis”, but his band, his spot-on drumming and the material were all so strong, it didn’t much matter. To hear tunes like “Ophelia” played live is such a treat, The Band’s songbook being the supreme repertoire that it is. It’s so easy to spend days on end listening to the group’s few live albums and the handful of truly quality bootlegs that circulate- the finest music ever made.

Levon’s band boasts a killer horn section that can swing or stroll NOLA at a moment’s notice, and trombone and slide trumpet solos stood out early in the set. Some of the strongest performances, however, had Theresa Williams on lead vocals- her version of “Long Black Veil” with this band is just stunning- and of course, the hour long set concluded with a nice, clean rendition of “The Weight”. It wasn’t the best gig by any measure, but fun nonetheless.

Phil’s first set traveled along similar lines in both tone and performance, with a “Sittin’ on Top of the World” opener, “Tennessee Jed” and “Peggy-O”- countrified tunes with long pauses between. Stuck in the middle was the strongest pair, “Mexican Girl” followed by “Bird Song”. The former had a long, low jam with Phil comping Molitz on the melodica, and as the bass rose to take the lead, Molitz switched to the piano to return the favor. Larry Campbell then took the handoff, scorching a slick line to close it out. The latter was real slow and pretty through the verses, but the jam turned angular and jagged almost immediately, a reflection of the surroundings. Eventually it quieted down into a beautiful, lazy sunset walk- an excellent moment. Suddenly it was rockin’, and the band raced into the final verses- an atypical ending.

The set closed with a manic “Cumberland Blues” with some outrageous drumming (a harbinger of things to come) and a climax that had Jackie crossing the stage to meet with Larry in front of Molo’s riser. The pair shot licks and lines at each other rapid fire, Campbell finally playing so fast that Greene stepped back with a bow, pointing at the guitar slinger.

Phil at set break: “You’ve got dueling Telecasters; it doesn’t get much cooler than that and the volcano behind me.”

Sometimes something happens when it gets dark- the sound is crisper, the vibe is headier, it’s easier to get lost in the music. And when the band returned to the stage, the members took advantage of all those elements, launching right into “Uncle John’s Band”, no intro, no spaciness. And it was hot, rocketing into the jam, all red and loud. Larry cut a wide, wicked swath directly through the center, with everyone else trying to crowd around his run. At some point, Molo and Campbell seemed to be all alone, hacking out a new, nasty passage. As the tune ended, the musicians fell into a wildly explosive meltdown, almost the natural evolution of the energy on stage. Once everything cooled down, the group wandered into a clunky “Lazy River Road”, nowhere near as tight and shiny as a Ratdog version.

Philly’s own phormer Phriend, jazz great Greg Osby, joined in next, nestled up on Greene’s organ riser, for a big, classic “Scarlet” > “Fire”. The lead was passed around from sax to guitar to piano to guitar, and by the third verse of “Scarlet”, the whole place was rockin’. The transition began with Greene and Osby coloring a single line and swinging it high to a nice, broad, easy path. Eventually the band surged up that last step to “Fire on the Mountain”. Greg took the first lead again, lighting it up before passing it off to Larry- fantastic playing. The second jam didn’t blaze with quite the same fury, but it was an excellent, meaty centerpiece, or would have been, except after a brief pause, Phil counted down into a stunningly tight “St. Stephen” > “NFA” > “St. Stephen”. Molo took charge right at the drop in “Stephen”, driving hard into “NFA” without a moment’s hesitation- Molitz and Greene were immediately clapping over their heads and then both guitarists crunched into Bo Diddley style rhythm licks. Larry had another scorching solo with keyboards and thunder below, then Jackie crossed the stage again, this time to trade lines with Molitz. The band was on fire going back into “Stephen”, Greene a comet. Skipping the high greens, the quintet began the run toward “The Eleven”, so very good in the getting there- five men riding with fingers of gold.

After a long time, the ensemble finally wrestled free of the rhythm cycle, and with Molitz’s effects in the forefront, headed into a funky space interlude. Theresa came out again and Larry switched to bazouki for a rare and wonderful “Rosemary”- the delicate pairing of Phil and Larry here was simply gorgeous as it trailed off into the night sky. The show closed with Theresa and Phil sharing vocals on “Dew”- a good, not great (as Joan’s usually were) version that, like the “Fire” didn’t quite blow up at the end. Still, what a set! The band feels like a band now, which probably means there’ll be some change up come next tour

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