Phil Lesh and Friends, The Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY- 7/22
Photo by Dino Perrucci
Phil Lesh and Friends, featuring the bassist and his Furthur band mates John Kadlecik and Joe Russo, along with John Scofield and John Medeski, hit the stage at the Capitol Theater right on time to open a week of east coast gigs that would culminate at the Gathering of the Vibes. Launching straight into “Tennessee Jed”, the band seemed eager to play, but late in the song Medeski and Sco locked eyes across the stage and everything lurched up a level, or five, with Phil feeling his way in underneath and Kadlecik swinging in high. An auspicious start to the run indeed.
Next up was a loose shimmy version of “Peggy-O” with on Phil vocals, the beginning of which rode squarely on Russo’s spacious drumming. Kadlecik played beautiful fills before Medeski laid out a wicked right-hand-only solo. Sco, not missing a beat, unleashed his own scorching lead that set the room to howling, so much so that the performers on stage all looked up to better assess their reception. And it was now absolutely clear this would be quite a week. “Althea” too started out a bit loose, clearly due to only partial familiarity with the material from the jazz hounds, but those rough edges are just what you want from Phil and Friends, the price you gladly pay for the risk and energy that comes every time Lesh brings his rotating cast of musical bandits to town. Despite such wobbles, Sco played a perfect accent going into the second verse, one that had Phil smiling big, his tongue hanging out. Medeski pulled out a very Medeski lead, full of off kilter riffs and tweaky aggression, that was out of sync with the song, but that also pulled in both guitars, rounding into a hot passage. And even that was trumped by the finale, when Kadlecik gave Sco the nod and they all began to fly.
The set filled out with “Pride” and “Candy Man”, which had the most notably misplaced fills, and a breakneck “Bertha” that worked its way into a round robin by the end of the jam and had Kadlecik pumping his fist by the end of the song. Sure there were some missteps, but this band is a trio that know each other intimately plus a duo that know each other intimately, and the combination is entirely explosive.
The second set had a different feel, however. Whereas the first was filled with individual songs that lit up time and again, the second was a pair of long suites with just the briefest pause in between, both being cut from the same goopy, psychedelic fabric. And the song selection doesn’t necessarily tell the tale. “Golden Road” opened, but welcome as it always is, especially in that spot, it was perhaps a little too tight a composition for the band on opening night. Yet the first jam was very open, stretching well beyond the framework, and the second began with a galloping groove from Medeski that melted down into a loud, grating space freak out that set the tone for the rest of the music to come, although this was probably the most abrasive version of the theme. It lingered and spread, Medeski twisting knobs, until Phil guided everyone into a fat, round groove that led to “Shakedown”. It wasn’t the disco-funk dance party one might have expected from this line up, though, but a lower, less bombastic affair. The jam out was hazy, and eased and eased, peeling apart to reveal the tone of the transition segment once again. The Joshua Light Show was playing on the ceiling and walls and the whole event was an ideal freak out in the Psychedelic Palace.
Shape returned, forming around a trailing line from Kadlecik, hinting vaguely at “China Cat” before moving into “Crazy Fingers”. The instrumental sequence drifted through a series of leads, Joe and Phil grounding everything at the end of Sco’s solo and bringing it all back to the song. Afterward, the sounds floated into a beautiful place with Kadlecik sparkling bright and the rhythm section rolling full underneath, moving into the first of two extended segments that can only be labeled “Jam”—separated from both what came before and what would come after and having a character all its own. Joe switched to a speedy, light rhythm as the rest toyed about, offering ideas and testing out lines. What finally developed was a real cool section of improv that was lively without being wild, assured but with no particular place to be.
The music wound to a stop, but just for a moment before the band initiated “Unbroken Chain”. Kadlecik was playing smoky leads right up to the mid-song ridge, where Sco took over and passed the movement on to Medeski’s Rhodes. Kadlecik was able to guide a bit with some slick rhythm work, Joe too switching up the groove to bring the movement back, but instead the band let loose, Medeski and Russo both playing like demons, the guitar screaming in to punctuate everything. Thereafter the quintet dropped into a spacy place, Kadlecik on the pedals growling out tiger yowls, and Phil and Joe eventually setting everyone up for another approach. Both guitarist played on the finale, which wasn’t ideal really, creating more of a loose, prettyish jam than a killer set solo.
The following “Wharf Rat” was welcomed warmly, Kadlecik getting big cheers for his excellent vocal work. In particular, after “I know that the life I’m living’s no good,” the room went nuts and everything that followed seemed extra large, chill inducing. It was an incredibly nice version played under purple and blue walking lights. Leaving the song, the ensemble entered into the second free standing “Jam”, one filled with little switches in theme and tone. It was running for a minute, shimmying like “Aiko”, then showing a little island flare before a distinct “Dixie Chicken” tease before plummeting back into space and then into the freak out, with real screechy sounds from both Sco and Medeski. And then the room shook with the opening bass bomb of “Viola Lee Blues”. I and everyone around me literally jumped at the sound, so deep were we in intergalactic traveling. Like “Shakedown”, it didn’t maintain the rocking groove for long, dipping back into the morass instead. The band worked its way to the “Cumberland” approach that Furthur uses to end the song, but did so for the second verse. As the space started to creep back in, Joe refused to let it dominate again, shifting into a fat, round strut, with Kadlecik nearly teasing “Corrina”. And then he and Phil just sang the third verse over it—very slick. To close, the band launched into a joyous “GDTRFB” and encored with “Liberty”, which seemed an appropriate choice for such a free form set.