13 May 2008: The Warfield Theatre San Francisco, CA
Over five nights, the former Grateful Dead bassist played eight of
the Dead's albums in full, in order, culminating with a final,
six-and-a-half hour show that was a fitting finale to San Francisco's
Warfield Theatre, which is closing for renovations and will re-open
under new management.
30 June 2008
by Greg M. Schwartz
It was being framed as the end of an era. San Francisco's venerable
Warfield Theater would be temporarily closing for renovations and
re-opening under new management. The lease of Live Nation, the
company that took over Bill Graham Presents (BGP) after the iconic
concert promoter died in a 1991 helicopter crash, had run out. The
Warfield was now going to be run by Goldenvoice, a division of the
even bigger corporate behemoth AEG Live.
Word in the preceding weeks was that the Warfield would never be the
same, not just because of the renovations (like moving the soundboard
downstairs from the balcony), but because many of the longtime BGP
employees who kept the Warfield's vibe intact were going to be let
go. But leave it to the BGP folks to go out with a bang by scheduling
legendary Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh for five nights to close it out.
Still truckin', 68-year-old Lesh has been at the height of his powers
this past decade. The liver transplant he received at the end of 1998
seems to have re-invigorated Lesh beyond anything modern medicine
could have imagined. And since 1999 he's played with a veritable
who's who of next generation jam rockers with a mutually energizing effect.
When guitarist and de facto bandleader Jerry Garcia died in 1995, it
was hard to imagine much life left in the Dead's music. But Lesh has
achieved what was once unthinkablemost of the Phil & Friends shows
from this decade have been vastly superior to the majority of Dead
shows from the '90s, a time when Garcia's drug habit and debilitating
health often dragged the band into stale and uninspired performances.
Lesh has busted out old songs and endeavored to keep things fresh by
constantly re-interpreting those songs with a rotating lineup of friends.
The Warfield had played host to many storied moments in Grateful Dead
history and this run was poised for more of the same. Rumors of
special guests and surprises abound as the shows approach, including
a late arriving message on the Philzone.org message board that
advises, "don't miss the first night." It's no surprise then when
Tuesday nights show sells out that day to complete a sold out run.
Upon entering the Warfield, guests are immediately greeted with
artfully lit and decorated cutouts of the skeleton characters that
have been part of the Dead's vibe for decades. The aura of something
special is in the air, but the crowd doesn't seem particularly primed
when the lights go down. It's only the first night, though, and
there's a long week ahead, so pacing figures to be key. But when the
band opens with "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)", the first
song on the Dead's eponymous 1967 debut album, smiles abound. The
upbeat tune has been a crowd pleaser ever since Lesh brought it back
in 2000 covered in three decades worth of mothballs. This is followed
by a raucous romp through "Beat it on Down the Line", which just so
happens to be the second song on that debut album.
Lead guitarist Larry Campbell, formerly of Bob Dylan's band, takes
the lead vocal on the high-energy tune that features an unusually
extended jam. Such a treatment this early in a show is generally a
sign that the band is primed for a big night. The next tune features
youthful guitarist Jackie Greene (at 26, he's 42 years younger than
his band leader) singing on a re-arrangement of the Sonny Boy
Williamson blues classic "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", the third
song on that debut album. Are Lesh and friends really going to the
play the 1967 classic in its entirety?
When the band launches into "Cold, Rain and Snow", track four on the
album, the concept is confirmed and a 13-pointed lightning bolt (one
of the Dead's classic logos) shoots through the Warfield crowd, which
basks in the sudden knowledge that this show will be one for the
ages. After a hot run through "Sitting on Top of the World", the ante
is upped as the band launches into the ultra-rare "Cream Puff War"
with none other than Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir stepping
on stage to sing. A shower of confetti and two go-go girls accompany
Weir's entrance; the latter pulled straight from the 1960s, an Austin
Powers film, or possibly the strip club next door. Three more
'60s-styled gals boogie in each of the balcony's side loges as the
Warfield teleports back to 1967 for a spectacular vibe that sends the
crowd into an ecstatic delirium. Keyboardist Steve Mollitz (of
Particle) delivers the seminal psychedelic sound of the Hammond B-3
organ that truly takes the listener back. Cognitive dissonance never
tasted so sweet.
Weir sticks around for the rest of the set which features a monster
jam on album/set closer "Viola Lee Blues", the only song on the
albumaccording to Lesh's 2005 autobiographythat actually sounded
like the Dead did in 1967. The crowd is utterly wowed. Many veteran
rock acts are content to keep re-hashing the same old versions of the
same old songs as long as nostalgic fans will pay to see them
painstakingly recreated. But here's the 68-year-old Lesh pushing the
boundaries once again, as he always has, delivering a stunning set
and announcing that this run was going to be a historic one indeed.
Weir is back for set two as the band launches into "Cryptical
Envelopment", which means they are about to play the Dead's second
album, 1968's Anthem of the Sun. The rare "New Potato Caboose" keeps
the '60s flashback flowing, and the even rarer "Born Cross-Eyed"
follows, with Weir and Lesh reveling in the nostalgia. The smoking
hot grooves of "Alligator" and "Caution" close the set, with the band
receiving a rousing ovation. It sure doesn't feel like Tuesday night anymore.
There's no Weir on night two, but when the band opens with a short
but sweet "St. Stephen", it's a signal that the Dead's third album,
1969's Aoxomoxoa, is now in play. "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and "Doin'
that Rag" showcase the bluesy base from which the Dead grew, while
"Mountains of the Moon" distills ambient and mystical psychedelia
into the mix. Classic cuts "China Cat Sunflower" and "Cosmic Charlie"
get the house really grooving, while long-buried offbeat rarities
"Rosemary" and "What's Become of the Baby" are also unearthed; both
feature an angel singing hypnotically from the balcony wings (the
angel turns out to be guitarist Campbell's wife Teresa Williams).
But what's next? Will it be 1969's Live/Dead, or will they stick to
studio albums? After a short jam, the instantly recognizable opening
notes of "Dark Star" announce that it will be Live/Dead, much to the
delight of the crowd. Ratdog/Other Ones guitarist Mark Karan joins
the band for the entire set, which features an epic 45-minute trip
through "Dark Star" before the evening's second rendition of "St.
Stephen". But whereas the show opener was album style, this one is
fully rocking. "The Eleven" and "Turn on Your Lovelight" keep the
energy cranked and it's another triumph of the old school for such
'60s jams to continue to sound so fresh.
After a needed day of rest, the run continues on Friday with what
shapes up as another classic. It's here that a fan breaks out the
shofara Jewish ram's horn that was blown in biblical times to
announce new moons and holidaysfor the first time. This celebration
certainly seems to qualify, particularly with this third show set to
feature the Dead's 1970 classics, Workingman's Dead and American
Beauty, considered by many to be the band's best albums.
"Uncle John's Band" opens the show, confirming that Workingman's Dead
is in effect. Guitarist David Nelson, a Garcia cohort since the '60s,
joins the band for the rest of the show, freeing Larry Campbell to
add some sweet pedal steel guitar on "Dire Wolf". Greene demonstrates
his future star power as he leads the way on a tremendous rendition
of "New Speedway Boogie". The song rocks on a primal level and when
the jam returns to the final chorus, Greene is screaming out "this
darkness got to give" with impassioned soul. The song segues
perfectly into the worker's lament of "Cumberland Blues". The music,
it seems, is actually playing the band now as the entire ensemble
delves into a smoking, bluegrassy jam that keeps pushing the energy higher.
"Easy Wind" presents a rarity from the Dead's original keyboardist,
Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. Greene can't quite muster the low-down bluesy
authenticity that Pigpen brought to the song, but it's a tall task.
The band gives it a solid go though, before "Casey Jones" wraps up
the set in rousing fashion. It's a strong set, but one gets the sense
that the best is still to come with American Beauty.
"Box of Rain" is a stupendous opener, with Campbell's pedal steel
re-creating an extra layer of musical magic. Usually played as an
encore, the song soars in the set-opening slot, a location that gives
it a rare chance to be used as a jam vehicle. Lesh seizes the
opportunity for a tasty if brief jam, with Campbell switching to
fiddle and adding another flavor. He remains on fiddle as the band
moves into "Friend of the Devil", with Nelson on vocals. The band is
really jelling now as Lesh steps in to sing the last verse before
directing a stellar jam that takes off into "I Know You Rider"
territory. Lesh's role as sonic alchemist is at a peak as his dynamic
low end inspires superb ensemble playing.
The energy continues to rise as the band segues into beloved rocker
"Sugar Magnolia", with Greene stepping up on lead vocal. Lesh and
Molo keep the groove strong while Campbell's lead guitar soars as the
entire theater cuts loose. The very rare "Operator" follows, with
Lesh filling in for Pigpen's vocals this time. Lesh's voice sparkles
with soul, enabling the song to retain its delightfully bluesy swing.
Garcia classic "Candyman" follows, while the rare and beloved
"Ripple" has the crowd singing along in an almost gospel-like
delight. Campbell moves over to mandolin, demonstrating yet more
skills. "Brokedown Palace", another classic ballad, follows and seems
particularly appropriate with the Warfield about to shut down.
The surprise treat of the evening comes as the band takes "Till the
Morning Comes", an all but forgotten tune that the Dead played only a
handful of times, and re-arranges it into an almost Shania
Twain-style rocking show-stopper with Teresa Williams returning for
soaring vocals, backed by harmonies from Lesh and Campbell. The band
transforms the tune into a raging set closer, with Campbell tearing
it up on lead guitar and Lesh propelling the groove higher and higher.
The band saves the album's last two songs for the encore. "Attics of
My Life", another classic Garcia ballad, is also given a new
arrangement. Lesh, Williams, and company sing the song near a
cappella, with just one sparse guitar behind majestic harmonies that
conjure a downright religious vibe. The band then revs back up again
for a rousing "Truckin'" that rocks the house and concludes yet
another monumental evening.
No one's quite sure what will happen on Saturday. Will the band
continue with albums in chronological order?
Check back tomorrow as PopMatters' Greg Schwartz continues his
coverage of Phil Lesh's mammoth five-night run at San Francisco's