Phil Lesh and Friends, The Nokia Theater, NYC- 11/2, 11/9, 11/13, 11/18
The first of Phil’s matinees wasn’t so much that as a slightly early gig, starting about a quarter to seven before a crowded but hardly packed house. The opening set began with a backwards take on a classic, “Good Lovin’” > “Bertha”, followed by “Ball and Chain”. It wasn’t until “Deep Elm”, however, that the band settled into its groove. A long version, the old standard felt good, stretching out across a dopey, playful walkwarm like a Sunday evening. The tempo shifted mid-song and a jam fell into quiet guitar picking and cool bass runs. The set closed with a three song run of “Crazy Fingers” > “NFA” > Franklin’s Tower.” Larry Campbell was on mandolin for the largely gentle reading of the first tune, although the band surged together under Jackie Greene’s repeating of the final “Oh, I try.” The music floated up with Barry Sless’s lead (most of the Philathon being augmented by the play-it-sweet guitarist for the David Nelson Band, usually on pedal steel, but this night, mostly on electric guitar); it floated up, but quickly reversed course down through darker, bluesy undertones. Larry took the bait, switching back to guitar and killing a hot solo. He hung one long, lingering note to cap it off, the band grinding into “NFA” underneath. It was a bad, bad moment, but Campbell didn’t stop there, crushing another lead, passing it around and taking it back again. By the second jam, the music was loud axe rock with Sless racing in front of a shock wave. Suddenly Phil and Molo shifted to the right and the weight slid away, smooth and clean, into “Franklin’s”a very fun transition.
Set II began with a string of hard womena sparse version of “Strange” with many lines omitted (none of Jackie Greene’s readings of this second batch of Bobby songs did the tunes any justice); a fumbled “Cell Block #9”, “Althea” and of course, “Samson”it being Sunday and all, as Bobby often says. The highlight of the set, and the night, found Larry back on mandolin and Jackie on acoustic for a really beautiful, warm “Uncle John’s Band”just perfect for the occasion. The improv was an open field for Sless to command, piano accents marking his lines. The music spaced out and became gorgeous, delicate, before “How does the song go?”thereafter spiraling off into a classic P and F jam. Every incarnation of Lesh’s brainchild needs to be able to play this foundational jam. The music became concentrated, passing into a stunning 90s era “Mind Left Body” tease, and on into “China Cat”. The band was still essentially playing accented acoustic music, and was playful as a result- Jackie, Larry and Steve Molitz even dropping into a “Good Lovin’” tease. The exiting jam headed for “Rider” but plunged over a cliff side into darker, tragic soundsvery sly jamming. At a moment, Larry and Phil stumbled, but then lurched into “The Eleven”and the music was still what you might call pretty damn acoustic. Again, Barry had lots of room to shine, although it’s worth noting how much the piano added to the tone here. A wicked little breakdown spaced out, and Larry finally switched back to electric after over half an hour with the mandolin. The music pooled under blue lights and darkness, and Jackie also went electric. Phil drove the music a deep, buzzy space that opened into “The Elevator” which is not a bad song on its own, but I don’t like it at all in the Phil and Friends context, and it definitely spoiled one of the true highlights of the entire run.
The second Sunday, however, was the highlight of the fourteen nightsand it was nice to see just the core, as Barry Sless was away with David Nelson. A strong, Americana first set opened with “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and a loose shimmy-shake of an “Alligator,” all red and groovy and staying happy the whole time. “Big Railroad Blues” had a Levon Helm voicing, and Jackies own “Shaken” brought out Theresa Williams and a heady, bass driven jam that ended in “Peggy-O.” Jackie was on acoustic and Larry played violin for the intensely delicate, nearly fragile blues under glassthe room was so quiet you could hear the crowd’s breath being stolen even as it happened. Hitting the opposite extreme to close was “Tennessee Jed”essentially just one big vamp, but a room loves a sing-along.
The second set was the main course. In fact the opening pairing of “Althea” and “Loser” would have been enough to push the set to a prime position among the 28 sets of the run. The tuning was already spacey when it melted into a haunting jam, and Larry played whining boy guitar, Jackie on organ. The transition into “Althea” was stunning and everyone knew we were in for the real sex. The solos were spinning, rowdy and heavy, and the band was as bad as its gets dropping back into the last verse, just crushing the song, and springing back all the more mighty. “Loser” looked to the other side, going low and nasty immediately, Jackie all bent over and moaning. Phil thundered through the choruses as Larry warbled and the whole movement loomed up like tragedy. It was so damn quiet during the final verse.
“Don’t Let Me Down” found a perfect placement, and centered around a droning jam that had Phil soloing through the center. The transition moved through a number of colors, like scanning the radio stations, finally landing on “Cryptical”it was an evening of doomed peoples. The music ramped up hectic and eased into “Dark Star," which was, of course, where we were headed all along. After the first verse, Phil carried the band toward a blues walk, but instead rose toward “Other One”although there would be a lengthy this-and-that improv with teases and a full jam on “St. Stephen” before Molo pummeled the audience with the onslaught of the song itself. A cataclysmic event loaded with Molitz special effects and tectonic ruptures, it was Mahavishnu big; it was the single best P and F song of the year. The colossal end rumbled down to Molitz before spacing out and drifting into the psychedelic crucible of “Mountains of the Moon”it just doesn’t get any spacier than the canyons surrounding those mountains. Eventually the band moved proudly back to “Dark Star” and “Cryptical” before finally closing with “Music”and, with minds wasted, everybody’s dancin’.
That Thursday night, after a moment of “Unbroken Chain” tuning, the band, again with Sless in the fold, opened with “Sunshine” on a rainy night, although they weren’t quite in synch. The jam after was likewise a bit angular and disjointed, although Jackie had a neat moment creating gypsy circus sounds before “Til the Morning Comes.” “Rag” was tighter, Larry cooking up a fireball with Philyou can wade in the water and never get wetbut the energy waned again with “Deep Elm” and “Walking Away.” The uneven set closed strong with a bright, happy “Crazy Fingers,” including nice short solos from Campbell and Sless that started to smolder and eventually glow. The music twisted and knotted and then took off at a gallop, charging into “Cold Rain and Snow.” Sless played absolutely wicked steel, and Phil and Molitz, on piano, matched him with their own shared lead after the second verse. The band built up an interesting, almost rhythmic structure, and Phil sang the third verse over itit was clear they were going to bring it home with a big bang, and they did not disappoint.
The second set had more consistent playing, even if the set list wasn’t anything too epic. A dense “Mason’s Children” slowly unfolded into “Minglewood.” Barry quickly took the spotlight here, but Larry also had a nice solo alongside Phil, taking it low and passing it to Jackie, who made the movement jump. Late in the song, Greene fell into a small talking blues rap that faded into a bad ass, nearly Phish-like jam between Jackie, Larry, Phil and Molo. The center of the set was a “Passenger” that stayed lively even as it moved through “Other One” and “Dark Star” teases on its way to an ominous “This Wheel’s On Fire” and then on into a stretched out “New Speedway Boogie” replete with nasty vamps and bass fillsit’s Greene’s own song now, just as Warren and Joan own “Sugaree”. And Joan is just who showed up for a nice, though not particularly noteworthy version of just that tune. To close, “Playing” > “NFA” > “Playing,” with Barry playing electric guitar for the first time all night. Not quite a psychedelic odyssey, the suite had a dramatic finale to end a good, but not great night of music.
The final matinee began with Jackie ramping up a decidedly Stones style jam into “Golden Road” followed by “Gone Wandering” and “Dupree’s.” The set’s central jam started with a cool, heavy-thumping “Easy Wind” that fell short when came to shifty-little-breakdown-tightness. Still, the band was in good form, and there were ample smiles on stage as they moved into “Bird Song.” The music grew dense, but not too dense to roll and be fun. The mood floated under blue lights, a quick tease of “My Favorite Things” gliding in before boiling up into a “Cumberland” style transition to “Built to Last.” Before the “Dancing” closer Phil said, “I love you too.”
The second set opened with “Samson” and “Music” but while Jackie’s vocals were great on the latter, as with “Easy Wind,” there were few clean edges herenot to compare very different bands, but RatDog would never have such sloppy transitions within the song structure. The earlier tease of “Cumberland” came to fruition, followed by “Throwing Stones,” which fell prey to that same old trend that had bogged down “Music.” The “Other One” had a fat Phil concussion for the transition and a nice, long, open-ended space out in the jam before shifting to Theresa Williams’ beautiful vocals on “China Doll” but really the flow of the set was too stifled to make it all shine. The one truly amazing moment of the night was the up-tempo, incredibly kick ass version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” that closed the show. This is what the band should be doing, truly making the material its own and playing it for it’s worth. Hearing the version reminded me of the first time I heard Aretha Franklin’s cover of “The Weight” and then of the first time I heard Warren’s cover of Aretha Franklin’s cover of “The Weight.” Just awesome.
To culminate the month of shows, Phil and company came out with grandeur in mind. The tuning was immediately deeply spacey, with Larry on bazouki and Barry on electric guitar. The music pooled, all syrupy and thick, and flowed into “Lady with a Fan.” Phil’s bass work was nothing short of devastating, and tonight the gallop to “Inspiration!” felt really good. Firmly in his role as band leader, Lesh commanded the music and pulverized the jam. The transition to “Slipknot” wasn’t the cleanest passage around, but damn, what a moment! The jam was chunky, even cartoony, but didn’t hesitate to slip into the nether regions and linger in the fog. Somehow, the band pulled it all back together to finish “Slipknot” before storming into “The Elevator.” By the end, the band had played over a half hour of purely instrumental music. An intense “Morning Dew” finished the set, and it was fascinating to watch Larry and Barry take on the final solo as a duetbeautiful.
There was a false start to the song, and by the expression on his face and the gestures he was making, Phil seemed to be having trouble hearing what he was playing, so a long break ensued with everyone scrambling around that crazy looking bass. When the band eventually retook the stage, they were feelin’ groovy, looking fine with “Born Cross Eyed” > “New Potato Caboose.” The latter tune finished by wandering around in a loose, pleasant jam that suddenly muscled into a great version of “Gimme Shelter,” helped in no small way by Jackie and Theresa’s shared vocals. The song melted briefly back into the soupy ether, only to give way to “Eyes.” Barry’s leads were so sweet, and Phil’s solo charged right into the transition to “The Eleven.” Larry was on mandolin, and Jackie and Molo were locked up solid. Phil turned to face Larry and Barry across the stage to count down to the explosive intro. Although there was a sense that the end was drawing near, that all these tunes had been played before, the performances were strong, especially on “Unbroken Chain.” A long, chill inducing version, it was a great centerpiece, and had some breathtaking work from Larry Campbell at the end. At some point he switched to dobro, a relatively rarely part of his arsenal, to color “Dark Star” twangy slide sounds. The music flared up after the first verse with some excellent, responsive full band jamming. Now LC had the bazouki in hand, and a pretty passage opened on ”Mountains of the Moon”always a treat to hear, but perhaps a bit haunting and soupy in an otherwise muscular set of psychedelic vehicles. With the end of the song came the end of the run for all intents and purposes“The Wheel” and “Midnight Hour” both being short and rushed, just crammed in to complete a set list.
Apparently there were a number of frayed occurrences throughout the theater during this final gig: a very chatty crowd to be sure, but also many reports of people passing out, an injured taper and even a pair of fights; all of which emphasized that the Philathon had run its course. Not that those events should leave a bitter taste, eitherthere was more music at the Nokia than anyone should be expected to digest, and a hundred kind little interactions and friendships formed or renewed. By all indications 11/9 was the best single show, with its devastating second set built around that insane “Other One.” Some other takeaways include the “Crazy Fingers” > “Cold Rain and Snow” from 11/13, and “This Wheel’s on Fire” > “New Speedway Boogie” from the second set that same night; the “Hard Rain” from 11/16; and the entire five song first set from 11/18. The one thing that I keep coming back to though, over and over and over, is the acoustic jam of “Uncle John’s Band” > “China Cat Sunflower” > “The Eleven” from 11/2that was really something special.