Phil Lesh and Friends…despite myself, i loved it
Last week I spoke about box sets and the Dead. And I mentioned I was plugged into going to this gig last night in Port Chester NY, which I likened to a root canal. So after a long day, when all I felt like doing was couch potato-ing and watching a French TV crime drama on Netflix, I decided not to blow off a $70 ticket and at least check out what I expected to find. Beware of expectations: they kick you in the ass.
As I walked along the dark side street to get to the front door, a guy jumped out between parked cars and yelled “It’s Jimmy from New Hampshire” to which I replied “No…its Ed from nowhere.” I got a “far out” and a hearty laugh as he went back into the weeds along the train station parking spot to do whatever one does in the weeds. As I rounded the corner I found a younger man, maybe twenty-five or so, decked out in a handcrafted jacket made from the imagery that is the cover of Garcia’s Cats Under The Stars album and holding just one finger up. Everybody recognizes that sign; he needed a miracle.
I was waiting for some folks who were down the corner at a bar getting their buzz on and heard the music, so I wondered in on my own. Guards frisk people at shows these days and despite me looking forward to the female groping me, it was the guy who patted me down. He missed my tab of vitamin D and didn’t blink at my custom toothpick holder. I was nicely invited into the theater and discovered for a change that this was a night not of people my own age. Oh yeah…the grey hairs were there in force, but this was a younger group of thirty-somethings who were drinking more than a distillary can ship out in a week and smoking more than is produced by a couple of acres in Humboldt during a really good season.
Just a great place to be for a twelve step junkie…This is a only a test. Your regular life will resume shortly. In the meantime, ignore the carpet soaked with beer that goes squish as you take each step and the dancing burnouts in smelly decades’ old tees showing off that they were at New Haven in 1976 and the few women who braved the testosterone, decked out in thier peasant skirts, halter tops, headbands and cute dancing bear tattoos.
I think you get the flavor.
The theater is beautiful, if not in need of a good airing out this morning. Restored, light show projected on the walls, great sight lines, a sound system and acoustical arrangement that might just be the best ever heard by these ears and although the main floor seats have been removed (that is, if they were ever there in the first place), you get used to standing up for three and half or four hours. Today I am in need of ibuprofen.
It took just the first song I heard, “Truckin'” for me to run the gamut of thought process from “this is a stupid tribute band with one original member” to “this is an amazing ensemble of musicians playing at an extremely high level of precision and improvisation…taking the framework of songs I know and turning them into something new and renewed.” And damn if it wasn’t a helluva lot of fun. Hard not to think something as inane as ” they were better than the Dead on some nights” but if you get your head out of the comparison bucket of sand, you’re left with a thrilling night of intensive performance from the stage to the crowd and back. Because…
The audience sings the songs.
I’ve never quite experienced this before at a concert. The band plays, they kick off the vocals and by the third word the crowd rises up and takes the wheel. It’s a counter-culture (sort of…docs, lawyers, equity traders, businessmen) version of Sing Along With Mitch. You get caught up. Despite yourself, it is hard not to love this moment. Its hard not to be in the present. Its hard not to love this gig. And its hard not to love Phil Lesh for giving it to the fans.
There’s a spot blocked off behind the soundboard for tapers. At least thats what they were once called. I went over to look at the dazzling technology of portable studios…watching one guy about my age running a live broadcast of the show on a streaming site. There were of course the obligatory signs that said “no pictures, no video, no sound recordings allowed” but as we Dead people know, that gets thrown out the windows by this group. Its why there are 10,000 hours available to download for free of just Dead shows, and an almost equal number of Ratdog, Further, Lesh and the various offshoots readily available.
So I should wrap this up with giving credit to the band. First, Phil Lesh is almost 74 years old and looks about forty-five from fifty feel away. Not only is his stamina something to behold, but his playing has never…never I say…been better than now. His six string bass is the anchor of the group, and he plays it with fury and abandon. Last year he founded a music venue called Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael. The venue officially opened on March 17, 2012, and when not on tour on they own or with dad, his sons Grahame and Brian play in the house band. Last night Brian’s band American Jubilee opened, and Grahame played with dad…a very good Weir to Phil’s Lesh, and his vocal duties were strong and clear.
The rest of the band for this tour will consist of old friends and new, featuring extraordinary guitarists Anders Osborne and Luther Dickinson, keyboardist Jason Crosby and drummer Tony Leone. As the old Dead concerts, this was long. The opening act took to the stage at 7:30 and I left at around half past midnight when they finished “I Shall Be Released” and “I Know You Rider”, still not leaving the stage and certainly not ready for an encore just yet. The crowd was moving together like a serpent across the sand, beginning to shake the high from their bodies for the ride home, preparing for re-entry into the reality show that measures their lives. It was a magical evening and I watched French TV when I got hone at one-thirty.
This is Phil’s bass.