Phil Lesh - who's bringing his new band to The Bob tonight - dishes
on Dylan and fighting with Bob Weir
By RYAN CORMIER
February 18, 2010
The long, strange 45-year trip of Phil Lesh and Bob Weir will finally
make a pit stop in Delaware.
The founding members of the Grateful Dead will appear in Newark
tonight at the Bob Carpenter Center, performing a mix of Dead tunes
and cover songs with their new band, Furthur.
"Of course I can't tell you that my memory is perfect, but I don't
recall ever having played in Delaware," Lesh said this week from his
tour bus as it traveled from Ithaca, N.Y., to the band's next stop in
Lesh and Weir will be joined by John Kadlecik (Dark Star Orchestra),
Jeff Chimenti and Jay Lane (RatDog), Joe Russo (Benevento/Russo Duo),
Sunshine Garcia Becker and Zoe Ellis with Furthur. (The band's name
is a nod to the psychedelic school bus owned by author and well-known
LSD experimenter Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.)
Lesh, who co-wrote Grateful Dead songs like "Box of Rain" and
"Unbroken Chain," started the new band with Weir last year after a
quick tour with The Dead -- a tour that rekindled the musical
relationship between the pair.
We talked to Lesh about the bond between members of the Dead, his new
band and his memories of the soon-to-be demolished Spectrum in Philadelphia.
Where did the idea for Furthur come from, and why so soon after the
rebirth of The Dead?
The Dead tour was always planned as a one-off. Nothing more than
that. But the result of that was that Bob and I rediscovered that we
enjoy playing together so much that we wanted to continue doing it.
So we just decided to put a band together, Bob and I, and this is the result.
I read a recent interview with Weir, and he said you two had fought
like "cats and dogs." What has changed?
It's like family. You love your family, but you don't always agree.
Sometimes there's controversy, and you go back and forth, but there
is always that love there. I've always absolutely adored Bob's
playing, and there's nobody who plays like he does. We have this
massive history of playing together, so we're very in tune with one
another musically. It never seemed right that we weren't playing
together and developing that as far as it could go. This is the
perfect opportunity to rectify that situation.
And he's not sitting next to you on the bus right now, forcing you
say all that, right?
Certainly not. I'm here with my wife. [Laughs.]
Where do the night's set lists for Furthur come from? I see
everything from Grateful Dead tunes to Bob Dylan and Beatles covers
in the set lists from previous shows.
It's a collaborative effort. Bob has input. I have input. And so does
my wife, Jill, and Bob's manager, Matt Busch. We all hammer it out
together, but it's mostly Jill and Matt, to be perfectly frank with you.
What should fans expect when they come to see this band for the
first time in Newark?
My personal feeling about all that is leave your expectations at the
door. Forget about what you've heard about what's going to happen.
Just come on in and be open and experience what's actually going to
happen. That's basically what we're all about: what happens in the now.
The fact that John Kadlecik from the Grateful Dead cover band Dark
Star Orchestra is in Furthur must complete some sort of weird circle
for him, I guess.
I bet! [Laughs.]
How did that happen?
Once we decided we wanted to put something together, we started
looking for musicians. What I've done in my bands is bring in people
who frequently are not part of the Grateful Dead complex. My
philosophy has been to bring new perspectives to the music. This
time, we wanted to re-create the chemistry. We can't re-create the
sound or the actual music that we played back in the day, but we can
try to re-create that chemistry, where everybody is really listening
to each other. There's a network of associations going on while we're
playing, and a whole bunch of connections are being formed,
transformed and then handed off. John seemed to have that vibe.
Is it like having a long-lost bandmate, because he knows the
material so well?
Yes, and that's part of it. Part of the difficulty of doing my
revolving-door kind of thing with Phil Lesh & Friends was that I had
to teach material again and again to the new musicians coming into
the band. I just didn't want to do that this time. This was a way to
avoid that as well.
Is there a new energy with Kadlecik? There are some who say he might
be the closest thing to Jerry Garcia when it comes to the band's
sound since his death in 1995?
It's interesting, because it's old and new at the same time. The vibe
and the chemistry is very similar to what we used to have back in the
day. And yet since the personnel is not the same, it's not going to
be the same. With John and [drummer] Joe Russo, they both bring their
own perspective and own musical sensibilities to the Grateful Dead
music. It's interesting that now that John is playing with us, he
might be expanding a little more than he might have with the Dark
Star Orchestra. It's really interesting to see how it's developing.
It's a bit hard to believe, but we're coming up on 15 years since
Jerry Garcia's death. Looking back at your work since then and your
relationships with the remaining members of that band, how do you
think you all did surviving that blow and maintaining that bond
between you all?
One of Bobby's favorite sayings is, "What we have is thicker than
blood." That's the way it is, and it's not going to change. To lose
somebody from a relationship like that is devastating, of course. But
over time, the wound kind of heals over and, of course, that person,
Jerry, is missed tremendously. At the same time, life has to go on,
and we want to continue making the music. I'm just grateful I can
connect with Bob again.
Eight years after your liver transplant in 1998, you were diagnosed
with prostate cancer, a disease that took your father. With that
history of the disease and its destruction in your family, how did
you react to the news and take that on?
Since that was what killed my father, I wasn't going to let that
happen to me. And so I had surgery and they removed the prostate --
and they got it all. I'm cancer-free.
And you are feeling fine these days?
Oh, yeah. In fact, my liver doctor is delighted that my lab results
are still stable and standard after over 11 years. I'm in pretty good
I was watching PBS last week, and Bob Dylan was on there performing
at the White House.
"The Times They Are A-Changin'."
Yeah, that's what he sang. I know The Dead performed at a few events
for Barack Obama during and after the campaign. What do you think of
his first year in office?
I still believe in the guy. And I think he's doing the best things he
can do with the circumstances he inherited and the Congress he has to
deal with. I kind of feel an affinity with those people who say throw
all of the bums out and start over. On the other hand, who knows what
that would bring? I still think Barack is the man for the job, and I
just wished more people felt like that so we could get things done.
I see you turn 70 next month and will be hosting a celebration in
San Francisco with Furthur benefitting Haitian earthquake relief
efforts. Do you find yourself taking stock of your life a little more
as you reach that milestone?
Only in the sense that I can't believe I've made it this far. A lot
of people would share that sense from my generation, with all of the
craziness. I've seen a lot in my life -- a lot of change.
It must be satisfying at this time in your life to play a college
arena like you will here in Delaware and have all those baby faces
looking back at you and digging your music after all this time. That
doesn't happen very often.
I guess you have to have the longevity for that to happen. To be
honest with you, almost immediately after Jerry died, we all noticed
significant numbers of younger people coming to the shows. And some
of them were too young to have seen us with Jerry.
The Dead performed at the Spectrum for the last time in May, and the
venue has since closed and will be demolished soon. Do you have a
favorite memory from the record 53 performances you guys had there? I
know that is where "Unbroken Chain" had its live debut in 1995.
I remember 1995 because my son, Grahame, who was 9 at the time,
wanted us to play that song live. I can't say no to my son. But we've
played so many great shows there. I don't have many specific
memories, but the audiences we have in Philadelphia and New York seem
to bring out the best that we have to offer at any given moment. I
don't know what it is, but it's absolutely wonderful. And that's why
I love to play in those places.
Contact Ryan Cormier at 324-2863 or firstname.lastname@example.org.