Phil Lesh & Friends, Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh, NY- 7/14
A Wave Upon The SandLocated within the Jones Beach State Park, the Jones Beach Amphitheater is a beachfront open-air arena has a rich musical history. The venue sits inside one of the most beautiful and popular beaches on the East Coach. Its estimated that 8 million people visit the beach every year. The park was commissioned by Robert Moses and opened in 1929, although the Jones Beach Theatre wasnt added until 1952. The theatre originally held 8,200 seats and featured a moat between the stage and audience, which was used for many elaborate productions. Today the venue sits close to 15,000 people with an orchestra section over the long-since filled in, moat.
Growing up on Long Island, NY, I saw all my first shows at Jones Beach. During Phil Leshs 2000 Summer Tour he played his first show at Jones Beach where an amazing Terrapin Station > Scarlet Begonias blew me away. Phil came back almost every summer after that performing with his band and also The Dead, a total of 16 full sets.
On this Sunday in July, the weather is perfect. The small beach next to the Amphitheatre is packed with people cooling off in the water or just hanging out. As Im walking into the show, shortly after Levon Helm Band ended their opening set with The Bands classic The Weight and there are a few kids with their fingers in the air hoping Jerry will send them down a couple miracles. In the distance outside the parking lot exit the enormous Jones Beach Water Tower catches my eye. The 231 foot high, 315,000-gallon tower was modeled after the St. Marks Cathedral, bell tower in Venice. It draws 1000-year-old water from wells 1100 feet deep and supplies all of the water used at the park. The Art Deco & Italianate-style water tower along with the other buildings and facilities were made from Ohio Sandstone and Barbizon Brick. Robert Moses ordered the construction of the water tower himself. He wanted it to be the central feature of the park greeting the visitors as they arrived. It still sits prominently in a traffic roundabout right outside the Jones Beach Amphitheatre Parking Lot.
Were inside the venue and the band is coming out onto the stage. The 27-year-old Jackie Greene is all in black with a red guitar strap. John Molo sits down at the drums wearing a white button down shirt. Larry Campbell, Bob Dylans longtime guitarist and Steve Molitz, keyboardist form the band Particle; take their positions as well. Phil is wearing a forest green polo shirt and jeans, smiling at the crowd, putting in his earplugs behind his amp. The bands all there. Everyones thinking, Whats it going to be? What are they going to open with? The Weir/Hart/Hunter tune Playing in the Band is a powerful opener in the Key of D Major. The arpeggio introduction bursts into the lyrics, which Jackie sings, Some Folks Trust in Reason, Others Trust in Might! I Dont Trust in Nothing, but I Know it Comes Out Right. The audience joins in for the chorus. A bit later, after the 2nd Chorus, the band goes into an instrumental section and Molo blasts them back into another verse:
Standing on a Tower, World at my Command.
You Just Keep Turning while Im Playing in the Band
And if No Man Among You, Got No Sin Upon his Hand
Let him Cast a Stone at me for Playing in the Band.
Theres the Jones Beach Water Tower seemingly popping up in the lyrics to Playing. Its north wall can easily be seen from Phils spot on stage and he offers Long Islanders a new way to see whats been in front of us our whole lives. As a bandleader, writes Phil Lesh in his Autobiography Searching for the Sound, I like nothing better than to plan shows in which I can string songs and improvisations together thematically, like a garland of pearls, and then encourage the musicians to step outside their standard way of thinking and playing completely in the context of the moment.
The band moves out of the songs structured parts and drops into the jam. Larry begins soloing in a D Mixolydian scale; Steve is improvising on the keys moving up and down the scales. Jackie is strumming chords behind them, as Phil holds it all together. Molo is crashing on symbols, banging on the toms ferociously as the jam settles while Molo keeps firing away on the ride. The jam then mellows out an eventually lands in Bird Song, Hunter/Garcias tribute to Janis Joplin. Although the first verse has a female bird inspired by Janis, Phil sings the second verse about a male bird and has done so since Jerrys passing: All I know is something like a bird within HIM sang. All I know HE sang a little while and then flew on.
The band ends Bird Song and Jackie leads them into one of his originals on the acoustic guitar while blowing in a harmonica. The song is called When Your Walking Away and it is a slower ballad- like love song about heartache. After this piece the band sounds like they are going to play John Lennons Tomorrow Never Knows but instead they bring out the melodies of Hunter/Garcias The Wheel. The outtro jam in this song is monstrous, as the band is taking Hunters lyrics to heart: Wouldnt you try just a little bit harder? Wouldnt you try just a little bit more? Both Jackie and Larry are trading off licks now. Its incredible to hear how tight these two guys have become within only a year of playing together. Molos pounding on his drum kit and Lesh is playing with the energy of a young man. If you closed your eyes youd probably think you were listening to a bass player in his 20s. Then Larry changes instruments and puts on his bouzouki, a member of the mandolin family. Molitz is also changing his sound over to a synth. The texture is much more eerie and dissonant. Its Mountains of the Moon, another Hunter/Garcia tune:
Cold Mountain Water, The Jade Merchants Daughter
High How The Carrion Crow, Fol De Rol De Riddle
High How The Carrion Crow, Bow and Bend to Me
It is fitting that Larry is playing a bouzouki since the song is filled with characters and imagery from Classical Greece.
When the Mountains of the Moon ends the band picks up the tempo and adding some Latin flair to a fast Uncle Johns Band intro. This song is still one of the Deads most popular and becomes a crowd sing along. Phil & Friends then close the set with a Sugar Magnolia that keeps the audience up and dancing. Shes my summer lovein the summer night moonlight
Thats the first set. I walk out into the lobby and help the HeadCount volunteers registering voters. I find it humorous that someone is walking around with chocolates and snacks yelling Candyman. Hes embodying a Garcia/Hunter tune, but having trouble selling candy. The set break goes by quickly and I return to the mezzanine.
Its completely dark now, and the band is back onstage. Molo counts them off and theyre rocking a funky jam. Green Lights in the background, a Bluesy Jam in G is reminiscent of Viola Lee Blues. However, they dont go into Violabut instead they start China Cat Sunflower. China Cat features some of the earliest lyrics Hunter sent to Garcia and The Grateful Dead. The structure and lyrics were quite revolutionary, as the song doesnt feature a chorus. Theres only the melody, groove, verses and instrumental section.
Rather than its typical pairing with I Know You Rider, the jam at the end leads elsewhere, grooving into Fire on the Mountain with Teresa Williams joining them on vocals. Even though China Cat>Fire is a killer combo, and performed super tight, I feel like Ive heard and seen better standalone versions of the songs. Still, Phils vocals during the verses are full of wisdom, emotion and power. He yells the last line, The more that you give the more it will take, which is a thin line beyond which you really cant fake! The band climbs higher and higher up the mountain in their jam.
Reaching the peak, the two-chord A B groove resolves into the B riff of Sugaree. This version is different then The Grateful Deads or Jerry Garcia Bands it is much more like a R&B, Soul tune. Jackie sounds like a blues/soul singer invoking the spirit of Ron Pigpen McKernan, the Deads original keyboardist and front man. After the chorus he yells, AHH! Steve! Molitz begins his organ solo and Jackie yells again AHHH! Show ‘em your SOUL son! During Larry Campbells guitar solo Jackie keeps growling, grunting and yelling YEAH! Come on! As Larry is ripping up the guitar, the whole band nails these two impromptu hits with Molo, at the end of the chord progression. Jackie does a fantastic job during this song on the vocals. His soulfulness and bravado adds flavor and confidence to the bands playing. Jackie is nailing the ending and jumping up and down, Oh! You gotta Shake it! Shake it! Yeeeeaaaaah Sugaree!
We are deep into the 2nd set now, where Phil brings out the heavy hitters and long time fan favorites. He is making no exemption tonight at Jones Beach. With a mere 2 notes, the band begins the St. Stephen intro and the crowd goes wild! The songs imagery also fits in perfectly with the shows Jones Beach theme.
Wishing well, and a golden bell
Bucket hanging clear to Hell
Hell half way twixt now and then
Stephen fill it up and lower it down again
Saint Stephen will remain
All hes lost he shall regain
Seashore washed by the suds and the foam
Been there so long hes got to calling it home
The jam between the verses customarily starts with the guitars banging out E chords, then changes from quadruple time to a circular moving duple time jam, but tonight the outtro jam is entirely different with Molitz soloing on the synthesizer. Hes using a sound similar to the synth on Edgar Winters Frankenstein,as the band riffs while Molitz turns knobs and modulates the wave frequency of his notes.
This jam transitions into The Eleven, a song penned by Hunter with music by Lesh. The odd meter of 11 beats per bar drives the piece and this song goes on for almost 11 minutes of psychedelic insanity. When Phil sings The Elevens last line, sink beneath the waters to the coral sands below, we get one more cool reference to Jones Beach.
The four chord progression A-D-E-D fades into Unbroken Chain and then to the two chord A to G chill groove of Dark Star. In Phils book he writes that Dark Star is a tone poem reflecting the possibility that the collapse of a star into a singularity in our universe could be the birth of another complete universe. Music can create a parallel universe, as well, and one senses that this is Phils intent as the first Dark Star jam segues into Born Cross Eyed and back into Dark Star.
The second set closes with a smokin I Know You Rider enclosing the whole movement in a massive China > Rider. During the Rider Teresa Williams jumps up and down dancing a Cajun rhythm. Larry and Jackie walk to the middle of the stage in front of Phil. Pushing their guitars in front of each other in an essential rock & roll antic. These days as Phil grows older this song chokes me up. I see all the people at the concert singing these lyrics back to him at the top of their lungs, with so much heart, so much love.
The band retreats backstage for a couple minutes. The audience applauding two amazing sets, hollering and whistling for more. Phil comes out first, thanking us for helping him make the music and says, New York is always as you well know, a special place for us! He also urges the crowd to become organ donors, because he would not be here today playing music if he were not the recipient of an organ donor. Then band introductions are made: Jackie Greene, John The God Molo, Miss Teresa Williams on Vocals, Larry Campbell The Master and Steve Molitz on keys and strangeness. Larry is the only one playing as the band sings the complex vocal harmonies for The Attics of My Life. At the end of Attics, Molitz joins in on Keys and Molo on drums. Larry begins to solo as they improvise over the songs introduction, jamming over Attics which then transitions into something else. Phil starts a Playing in the Band jam on the bass and they being things full circle with a Playing Reprise. The keys and guitars are repeating the melody, as Molo slams down on the drums and Phil improvises over it all. They triumphantly return to Playings instrumental section that takes them into the Chorus: Plaaaaying Like a Wave upon the Sand! Daaaaybreak! Daybreak on the Land! Plaaaying like a Wave upon the Sand. The ideal ending for a Jones Beach Phil & Friends show.