You Can Go Home Again:
Phil Lesh & Friends Reside Once More At NYC's Nokia Theater
By: David Schultz
November 24, 2008
Former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh participated in one of the
election season's hipper Democratic fundraisers when he rejoined Bob
Weir and the other surviving members of his old band to support
Barack Obama's Presidential bid. Given Lesh's staunch support of
Obama, it's slightly ironic that the Deadheads that populate Phil &
Friends shows might have strongly identified with the subtext of the
propaganda spouted by Sarah Palin with respect to the so-called
elitist liberal media. For the brief period of time that the
Republican Vice Presidential candidate was allowed to speak freely,
Palin tried to curry favor by identifying with a segment of the
population she perceived as unrepresented by the press and tired of
being talked down to by a news force that acted like they knew more
about the country's core ideals than those who live in America's
heartland. Little did Palin know that the Deadheads of the world
understood her rhetoric probably better than she did.
For decades, Deadheads have endured the backhanded praise extended by
most critics towards their beloved band: acknowledgement of the
Dead's longevity paired with bewildered observations as to why their
music would attract such loyalty; a plaudit to the fans' devotion
coupled with a gibe as to their cleanliness and the customary dig
that in order to truly enjoy the Dead's music, you would need to
repudiate a drug-free status. Such oratory has never bothered the
Dead faithful: in fact, their thoughts on the elite musical press
that have disrespected and mocked the Grateful Dead eerily echo those
of Palin for "rags" like the New York Times and Washington Post.
The disdain reserved for the Dead is odd given the reverence those
same pundits have for the musical genres featured prominently in
their music. Journalists rarely have anything bad to say about
Americana musical styles like folk, blues and country, among the more
populist forms of music, yet, they never seem to take to it when it's
being performed by Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir. Doing his part to flip
the proverbial finger at those who can't see the forest for the
trees, Phil Lesh and his exemplary band comprised of Larry Campbell,
Jackie Greene, Steve Molitz and John Molo, returned to the New York
City's Nokia Theater in Times Square, the site of their wildly
successful 2007 residency, for a fourteen night run, affectionately
dubbed the Phil-A-Thon.
Lesh does more than get by with a little help from his Friends. Even
though Jackie Greene joined Lesh, Larry Campbell, Steve Molitz and
John Molo just a little more than a year ago, this incarnation of
Phil & Friends plays as if they've been together for decades. During
last year's residency, this lineup was just starting to gel: Greene
having just come into the fold and Molitz just starting to find his
niche. For this year's run, Phil & Friends are a supremely confident
unit, taking fine advantage of Greene's versatile ability to handle
vocals so intimately associated with both Garcia and Weir to give new
life to songs like "Jack Straw," "Samson & Delilah" and "New Speedway Boogie."
Lesh remains one of the finest bassists to ever pick up the
instrument and it's possible to get lost in just watching what he's
doing with each song. Very rarely will you catch Lesh picking a
simple bass line; more often, he's crafting an intricate pattern that
weaves gingerly between the rejoinder of Campbell and Greene's guitar
work. For many of this year's shows, former Friend Barry Sless sat
in, bringing a third experienced guitar to the mix as well as the
fine twang of the pedal steel. With Sless there to handle the second
guitar role, Campbell had many opportunities to show why he's called
the "Master of Strings," expertly playing a variety of instruments to
add different textures and a sense of Americana authenticity. Whether
soloing on a variety of instruments or engaging in a challenging
give-and-take across the stage with Greene, Campbell remains a wonder
on stage. Ageless, he provides sweet harmony with his mandolin and
bouzouki but can also coax ferocious solos from the traditionally
peaceful instruments. It's a role he fills not just with Lesh but
with Levon Helm as part of The Band drummer's Midnight Rambles.
Physical resemblance to Dylan notwithstanding, Greene shies away from
playing up the easy comparisons to the storied singer. He's doesn't
shy away from them though: much of his wardrobe, with the exception
of a wool Rasta-styled hat, looks like it came straight out of the
transcendent folk-singer section of the vintage clothing catalog.
Along with Molitz, Greene brings a youthful energy to the band as
well as some solid songs from his own catalog. On an early show of
the residency, Greene's "About Cell Block #9" and "Like A Ball &
Chain" not only fit in nicely with the classic rock based set, they
were definite highlights.
A master of jamtronica, Particle's Molitz has found his niche within
the band, vaulting into the breach with confidence and bringing his
technical wizardry to some of the more traditional Dead songs. He's
even lending vocals. Anyone thinking that Lesh & Friends aren't able
to keep up with the young guns only need listen to their rendition of
Particle's "The Elevator." Molo, who deftly handles all the various
tempos Lesh guides the band through, rips through the high-paced beat
and Campbell adds a slight bolero feel to the song's techno beat.
For the last night of the Phil-A-Thon, Lesh seemed in high spirits,
an extra bounce in his step. After a wildly upbeat first set that
included an opening version of "Terrapin Station," a wild version of
"The Elevator" and a wonderfully moving "Morning Dew," the second set
was a decidedly subdued affair. Lesh handled an exceedingly
substantial part of the vocals during a stretch that included "Dark
Star," "Mountains Of The Moon" and "Unbroken Chain." In contrast,
Teresa Williams, who along with Sless earned "sixth Friend" status
during the residency, wowed the crowd with an astounding take on
"Gimme Shelter." Normally providing the higher notes on sweet
harmonies with Greene or Lesh, Williams stepped to the front with a
rock star turn on the Stones' classic, enlivening the crowd and
earning the wildly appreciative reaction she received when she
quietly walked off behind the stage.
Other than The New York Times favorable take on the Phil & Friends
residency, most of the major media pretty much ignored the festive
goings-on at the Nokia, probably spending quality time over at
Terminal 5 to lavish praise on The Hold Steady and Conor Oberst.
Regardless of whether the "elite" music press wishes to acknowledge
the resurgence of the Phil & Friends lineup or take note of strong
sense of community that still brings people to multiple shows, the
Deadheads probably won't take notice, or care for that matter. They
will be on high alert though when word of the 2009 residency gets out.
And the 1970s Dead Shall Arise (Sort of) and Jam With a Revolving Cast
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: November 4, 2008
The latest version of Phil Lesh and Friends formed a little more than
a year ago, which hardly makes it new to Mr. Lesh's core audience.
What kind of bandleader can play 14 shows in a row at a
2,000-capacity hall in New York City? One whose admirers might
ritually attend every show, calibrating the shifts and balances,
theorizing about meaning. Some at the Nokia Theater on Monday night,
maybe many, weren't average fans; they were meteorologists at the data center.
The old Phil Lesh and Friends, begun in 2000, was a step away from
the gentle, cobwebby sound-world of the Grateful Dead, the band with
which the bassist Mr. Lesh spent 30 years. It was loud and dense,
full of Warren Haynes's white-soul singing and red-meat Southern-rock
guitar improvising. This new version keeps the solid rock rhythms;
the drummer, John Molo, is the only carryover from that earlier
group. But it's a more delicate operation.
This band focuses on the music that the Dead played in the 1970s,
sometimes folk- and country-tinged. The current lineup includes Larry
Campbell, from Bob Dylan's touring band, on mandolin, fiddle and
steel guitar; the chameleonic singer, guitarist and keyboardist
Jackie Greene, whose voice suggests a compromise between the Grateful
Dead's two main singers, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir; the keyboardist
Steve Molitz; and the singer Teresa Williams.
On Monday not all the musicians played on every song, and the
instrumentation changed every 5 or 10 minutes. And for the run of
current shows advertised as the "Philathon" the band mutates
nightly to accommodate guest musicians.
For the second set on Monday Mr. Haynes sat in, and he was at his
best in this porous, malleable music. Instead of ramming home the
Southern-rock jamming ideal with thick slide-guitar phrases, he
played most of the set in single notes, picking with his fingers. His
improvisations on the Dead songs "Passenger" and "Fire on the
Mountain" amounted to the most delicate music of the night, finding
new motives, changing rhythmic ideas, disappearing into the tangle of
notes coming from three guitarists and then resurfacing.
Mr. Campbell was the most consistently rewarding musician onstage,
adding strikingly different detail, depending on the song. (In "Dire
Wolf," and not enough else, he played pedal-steel guitar with real
complexity and drive; by the sound of it he has studied the 1960s
heroes of that instrument, particularly Lloyd Green.)
And Mr. Lesh on bass was, effectively, the fourth guitarist,
melodically improvising throughout. His playing was the positive
counterweight to his voice, pale and inexpressive, and the fact that
at 68 he leaves much less to chance as a bandleader than he once did.
He gives instructions to his musicians over a closed-circuit
microphone system and reads his lyrics off a prompter.
It can't be unrelated that some of the show's peaks came through
predictable Dead strategy, as in "New, New Minglewood Blues" and
"Dancin' in the Streets," when the intertwined soloing guitars built
to their narrative climax just at the end of a chorus, and continued
on into the next.
Still, Mr. Lesh endures. If the Dead's music was a theory, a kind of
Living Constitution, then the whole point is to stretch it into the
evolving present. The whirling dancers, bootleg tapers and
note-takers at the show would probably agree.
Phil Lesh and Friends continue through Nov. 18 at the Nokia Theater,
1515 Broadway, at 44th Street; nokiatheatrenyc.com.