Phil Lesh & Friends, Roseland Ballroom, NYC, 11/11 and 11/13
Photo by Marc Millman
For the first night at Roseland, Phil Lesh & Friends, featuring John Kadlecik, Jackie Greene, Jeff Chimenti and Joe Russo, opens with a big and rocking “Alligator”, with the whole band chugging along. As they jam out of the song, John and Jackie and Jeff are all popping out short leads but everything is subsumed by the sheer forward momentum of the moment. Eventually Phil slows everything down and looks out towards space, before they melt into “Bird Song.” The music drifts toward quiet stillness between the first two verses, with Jackie adding little slide tweets. The space continues to ooze through until Joe pulls in Phil first, then Jackie for a hot run that also melts away. The music is changeable and unsettled, with moments when everything coalesces into a groove, but the musicians are all just as willing let it slip away in favor of the next idea. And by the time they’re jamming out of the song, it feels like we’re far into the show, although in reality we’re just in the middle of a week plus run of shows that feel so interconnected even if they’re at different venues in different cities.
“Bird Song” gives way to Jackie’s “Till the Light Comes”. There’s a great moment half way through the song when the music drops down low, and Jackie is strumming alone with Phil working along underneath. John slowly eases out a lead and the music builds; Jeff’s accents are so bright, and John’s solo flashes sterling. Really beautiful music. The requisite NYC “Strawberry Fields” follows to welcoming cheers, and the jam swings out with muscle, Joe playing with a mallet in one hand and a stick in the other. And then suddenly a raging “Franklin’s Tower” materializes out of nothing and sets the room on fire. A truly breathtaking transition. After “Let the music play,” Jackie unleashes a wicked lead, like he’s been listening to a lot ABB—it is a tone he’d return to again and again throughout the run. Later Jeff tears into a super rockin’ jam, pushing the already over-the-top set closer to a whole other level, with John blazing in at the end.
The second set opens with “Dweller on the Threshold”, and there’s an early 80’s JGB vibe going on. “Doin’ That Rag” follows, with cool, clacky drums at the very start. John takes a soaring lead on the jam, and he’s definitely driving a tighter machine than in the first set. A rare treat, “Just Another Whistle Stop” follows, hitting a nice groove and setting up a great “Althea”, which features the best single solo of the night. Jackie is over on the organ, leaving Jeff extra free to dance across the baby grand’s 88. He makes big, galloping strides up to a peak, but then it peaks even higher, and then again even higher. It’s a huge moment that draws everyone in and gets a big cheer. The bar is way too high, and nothing that follows in the set can come close.
There had been a fair amount of idle chatter about the third set’s special guest: NYC residents and favorite Phil collaborators Warren Haynes and Trey Anastasio were go to guys, but Chris Robinson seemed more likely as he had a Saturday gig in the City and Adam MacDougall from CRB would be taking over keyboard duties for Jeff on Monday. So when none of the above step on stage, and few people seem to recognize Stanley Jordan, there is a bit of a resigned sigh. But it’s very easy to get lost in the deep space noodle attack of a jam that opens the set, and eventually rounds in on “Mountains of the Moon.” Jordan slips right into the mix, flashing out and fading away, and playing real high on the neck, fingers flying. The space is thick, with Jackie droning, giving the others a base on which to grow, but Joe is really driving the show, pulling everyone back to the second verse. Now all the guitars are looking at the drummer while Jeff sparkles in front, but that drummer eventually opens up in that way that he does, limbs lashing in wider and wider circles. The music moves into a blink of jazziness before sailing into a crazed dance groove, Jackie lays down sizzling rhythm licks. As the music falls back to the third verse, Joe smiles as if it were some pleasing artistic exercise.
Phil now guides everyone into a stomping stroll for a moment, and they all eye him for the cue to plunge into “Other One”—in fact all night all eyes are on Phil to see where he wants to go. John burns up the intro while Phil thunders away, and Stanley is dishing out fast, angular fingerpicking. The spaciness is profound, less a movement than an interstellar drift. After the second verse, Stanley bursts out with flourishes and “Dark Star” teases that warm away from the song itself; “Watchtower” is hiding in there somewhere too. Forty minutes into the set the psychedelic masterpiece rolls around again, taking its full form this time. The opening section is a broad sweep with John’s racing leads and Jeff on organ. Then Stanley offers bright, solid accents to his own runs, jazz-man style, before floating away… to the shocker of the night: “Stairway to Heaven”! The crowd is a bit slow on recognizing it, but when they do, Phil is all smiles. Joe too when John belts out, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow,” and then after he sings, “There’s still time to change the road you’re on,” he follows it with, “I sure hope so!” In fact, by mid song, John is absolutely killing it on vocals, and the song builds into a monster. What a treat!
The music returns to “Dark Star” immediately, dropping in on the second verse, but right after Jackie’s line a fat groove swells up and they don’t sing the chorus. It’s a classic Phil & Friends jam at a full run, that particular tone and mood that every line-up needs to be able to play, with long leads from Stanley and then from John, and Jackie adding in layers and layers of more guitar. It’s an excellent jam, and its familiarity notwithstanding, the whole set is reminiscent of the Ryan Adams sit-ins at the Nokia: big and loose and wild with a different sort of energy. The previously teased “Watchtower” now takes shape and it’s Jackie’s turn to destroy the song, belting out the vocals and tucking with Stanley to shred leads. It’s good, good music, and gives way to an appropriately huge “Dew”. John shines on the first solo, giving way to Jackie’s slide and finally to Stanley—each guitar is so distinct, yet they blend just right. Phil sets out on a nice stride into the finale, Jeff picking up on it and running along. It’s energetic and Jackie takes it all up to the peak. And just to add closure, when the music could end, it continues, spacing for a bit and then strutting slow and proud into “Dark Star’s” final chorus. While show began with a pair of somewhat off kilter, very short sets, it finished with a truly special trip through the cosmos. The difference must have been apparent to the band too, because the promised three set format was scrapped for the following Roseland shows.
At the final night at Roseland, the “Touch” opener feels good and John is totally animated while singing, but the real vibe of the night is declared when the band plows full steam into “Reuben and Cherise.” Always a treat, the song gets a huge welcome from the assembled masses, which are much fewer than on Sunday. The Ballroom is maybe two thirds full, and that’s just fine—there’s plenty of room to dance and it’s easy to wander up close without being crushed. The song opens on a nice jam that drifts farther and farther out, first at John’s behest, but Phil quickly joins, dislocating the ground and pulling Joe along for weird, down tempo carnival sounds. Both Phil and Stanley are just reaching out and about, exploring the edges for a nice cosmic wander, with Joe switching up beats until a groove settles in. And then the music rockets off into a long, spectacular jam with Jackie playing tight rhythm and Stanley snapping the lead. When it finally eases, the band slips into “Ramble on Rose”, Jackie’s vocals sounding really good, as they would throughout the night. In all, a very, very nice opening suite.
Next up Jackie moves to the organ for “TLEO,” John playing a glistening, rich solo before Adam and Greene do a quick keyboard swap and the CRB member tweaks out a Worrell-esque Hohner solo. He then passes the lead to Stanley, who blends the two preceding sounds. It’s a cool moment in a set filled with cool moments, but instead of returning to the last verse, the band hangs on the rhythm for a second, John shrugs at Phil as if to say, Let’s see what happens, and they head out again another jam. When it finally ends, Phil laughs with Joe.
“It Must Have Been the Roses” and a welcome “Here Comes the Sun” follow, making way for a big, closing “Good Lovin‘”. Adam plays hot little fills on the intro, and Jackie sings so well, with soulful phrasing and confidence, totally in command. The jam opens right up with a swirling movement, Stanley in the forefront until Jackie steps up and rocks it out. He hits a distinct riff, and Stanley begins to echo him immediately before they both play it together—a great musical interaction. The music loses shape and falls into a shimmy shake jam, Jackie eventually coming back with some blues rapping to take it home and end a pretty perfect first set.
He offers up still more creative, interesting phrasing on the “Scarlet” opener. The leads shift quickly from Adam to Stanley to some nice, tight guitar work from Jackie, with Phil pounding underneath. The tone shifts quickly too as the music moves farther from the song: a funky, tumble-down strut and speedy, clustered wanking with big drums that ramps up and drops down to Joe and Phil alone, finally pulling it all into “Fire on the Mountain”. John is singing so hard and screeching out a dragon’s squawk as he does so. Jackie rips out some wicked slide work at the end of the jam, and Phil pushes everything into a weird, double time take on the second verse. Stanley holds the reins for the next jam, playing lightning fast and getting a huge cheer in response. Joe then kicks big, broad drums throughout the end while John lays it down dirty and plays it back clean.
In classic form, “Scarlet” > “Fire” is followed by “Estimated Prophet”. Everyone is looking to Phil as John glows, Joe crashes and organ washes splash about. Later Adam and Stanley bubble up and everything shifts and turns, growing into a Phish-like moving and grooving jam. Very satisfying, even before the big swell that gives way to “Eyes of the World”. There’s excellent organ work on the intro, and later Jackie plays sweet rhythm licks as Stanley passes the lead to John. Later still Joe takes over and drives the movement, with John and Adam skating across the surface. As the music leaves the song, it’s Jackie’s turn to be in front with a full, pronounced sound that leads through more quick changes: a funky slide, a “Tennessee Jed” tease, a heady stroll on a starlit night, all of which melt down to just John and Stanley alone to start “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. The band warms in, Adam and Jackie first, and then Phil and Joe. The tune disperses and the band stretches out along the path it’s made—real pretty playing that soars up a massive, majestic cliff and finally returns to “Rainbow.” Everyone cheers. Phil too applauds.
Part two of the second set opens with “Playing in the Band”, Phil skipping about with classic runs, even if the guitars are a bit messy. Jackie disappears from the stage and the rest of the band closes ranks for a moment, Phil leaning in with Stanley. Then the music falls away entirely, leaving John alone to carve out some “Spanish” sounds. Jackie returns with sheet music, and everyone climbs another majestic rise to a beautiful “Comes a Time”—a tune never played enough by the Grateful Dead. When it ends, the music drifts once more and settles into “Let It Grow”. All three guitars are balanced through the instrumental break, and John plays like lightning into the jam, Joe thundering along with him. It’s incredibly dense and just keeps picking up steam until Joe explodes and clears the mid-song jump. The finale is mighty, with Phil calling the changes in a way he hasn’t all night. It could have been the closer, but again the sounds float out and swell and twist in psychedelic throes, winding their way back to “Playing in the Band”. Like the intro, it’s a little off key on the approach, but blazes for a big finish, Joe Russo playing like two drummers. With a “Not Fade Away” encore, Jackie on harp and cowbell, it is a great night of music from a truly excellent Phil and Friends line-up.