Words by: Ben Marks | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
Phil Lesh & Friends :: 05.13.08 & 05.14.08 :: Warfield Theatre :: San Francisco, CA
Barely a month ago, the Grateful Dead donated its business records, correspondence, Deadhead fan mail and stage props to UC Santa Cruz. This week, Phil Lesh & Friends contributed the Grateful Dead's repertoire to the community at large by performing one album per set for five nights running at The Warfield. Or at least that's the pattern established after Tuesday's and Wednesday's opening salvos.
Phil Lesh :: 05.13 :: The Warfield
The crowd was psyched on Tuesday when an unhurried intro jam morphed into "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)," a terrific choice for an opener but not necessarily a harbinger of things to come. Clearly Something was up because Bob Weir's trademark Vox amp was sitting center stage, so that legendary cat was out of the bag. Still, I wouldn't have predicted that by the end of the night I would have heard both Grateful Dead (1967) and Anthem of the Sun (1968) played back-to-back in their entirety and original album order.
The notion that something very deliberate on a music level was happening didn't really sink in until about the third song. After all, it would not be unheard of for the band to follow a tune like "Golden Road" with "Beat It On Down The Line," which gave guitarist Larry Campbell his first turn at the microphone. But, following that with "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" no doubt sent a fan or two to their cell phones to look up the song order of Grateful Dead online.
"Schoolgirl" shares an arrangement with a Jackie Greene song called "Seven Jealous Sisters," so in a weird way it was the closest thing we got to a Greene vibe all night. Though he delivered a number of sprint-like guitar solos during the first set and was a commanding presence behind the mic late in the second, Greene was pretty distracted in the middle, taking so many cigarette breaks that I started to seriously worry for the guy's health.
No, it was not to be Greene's night. It was Bob Weir's night, who took the stage preceded by the firing of confetti and the appearance of ten '60s costumed go-go girls, four each in the round balconies on either side of the stage, two on the stage itself, possibly hired from Crazy Horse, The Warfield's proudly seedy strip club neighbor next door.
Bob Weir & Phil Lesh :: 05.13 :: The Warfield
With "Cream Puff War" already in progress, Weir sang the first verse. Despite his guitar being low in the mix, he seemed to be in control, but a screw up with his vocals broke the band's momentum, and for the rest of the set the sound didn't quite coalesce. Lesh seemed mostly content to let Bobby happen, as it were, and we were occasionally rewarded for his patience. But, Weir's timing (when to begin a vocal, when to wait) sometimes seemed guided by an eccentric logic that eludes me.
The second set was a lot better, and not just because the opening notes of "Cryptical Envelopment" put an end to the evening's guessing game, once and for all (though Lesh demonstrated he's not a purist by sneaking "Nobody's Fault But Mine" in). Weir's guitar was more prominent in the house mix now, revealing rhythms and leads that were fluid and trippy, not just the discordant barks and growls behind which he sometimes seems to take refuge. "Alligator" was Lesh's turn to blow some lyrics, then Greene took control on "Caution," turning to each band member, one at a time, to ask, "Do you understand me?" The reply would be in music from Steve Molitz behind the keys, Campbell on guitar, and then, "Mr. Weir? Bobby!? Do you understand me?" For an extra beat, Weir just looked at him and one wondered if he did. Then, Weir totally brought it and my reservations finally fell away. During the introductions before the "Not Fade Away" encore, when the crowd enthusiastically gave Weir a sustained show of appreciation, it looked like they understood him, too.
Wednesdsay :: 05.14.08
The next night could not have been more different. If Tuesday was about everyone, band and crowd alike, getting used to the novelty of the format, Wednesday was more about the music. There was never any serious question in my mind that they would play Aoxomoxoa (1969) and Live Dead (1969) even if that would mean a repeat of "St. Stephen." The only question was who was going to play the extra pair of guitars that were front and center.
Jackie Greene :: 05.14 :: The Warfield
We'd have to wait until the second set to find out. The first set was a chance for the core members of this latest incarnation of Phil & Friends to show what they could do with this extraordinary album. Greene kept the evening's first performance of "St. Stephen" light by playing his parts on an acoustic guitar, which remained strapped around his neck for "Dupree's Diamond Blues," which he also sang. For "Rosemary," Campbell broke out the citern (a relative to the bouzouki), which he picked and strummed as his wife Teresa Williams sang the lyrics from one of the balconies that had been filled with go-go dancers the night before. Clad in a flowing white gown with a discreet gold crown on her head, Williams was like a fog-shrouded elvish princess sent from Middle Earth to assure The Warfield that everything would be okay when it's taken over after this run of shows by promoter AEG.
Molitz, who got less face time than the guitarists but made the most of it when he did, sang "Doin' That Rag," which included the first of three flawless a cappella performances of the night. Campbell took over on lead guitar, then switched back to citern for a wonderfully spacey "Mountains of the Moon," which also featured Greene on ethereal, haunting slide guitar. Lesh sang in a voice that remained strong and clear all night (I can't recall him sounding better), even when he got a bit lost in the lyrics. Soon we were into "China Cat Sunflower," with Greene and Campbell playing Allman Brothers-like synchronized leads that built and built until the tempo wound down for "What's Become of the Baby." I have to confess that I was sort of dreading this number but "Baby" turned out to be one of the best parts of the first set. With drummer John Molo quiet, Greene on keys, Molitz goosing his synthesizer and Campbell coaxing the sounds of mumbling planets from his pedal steel, Lesh traded vocals with Williams, again in the balcony. Lesh would sing his part, then look to the balcony for her reply, as in an opera – a charming, silly, lovely moment. "Cosmic Charlie" closed the set, complete with wonderful a cappella cartoon vocals by Lesh and Greene at the end.
RatDog's Mark Karan joined the lineup for the second set to perform Live Dead. Was "Dark Star" 30 minutes long or 40? Who knows or really cares? Karan added galaxies of sound, playing with the authority and poise of Garcia. The piece began up-tempo and jumpy with Molitz bouncing around on the piano and Greene wailing on slide. At times, Karan and Campbell would join forces to tag-team the riffs, then there'd be space, then crescendos, then more space, so that by the time Lesh was easing into the second verse, you couldn't quite figure out how the band had even gotten back to it. This was the clear high point of the evening: Greene tore it up, then Campbell would do the same, right behind him with Karan hot on his tail.
Mark Karan & Phil Lesh :: 05.14 :: The Warfield
By the time "St. Stephen" came around for his second appearance of the night, the band and crowd were one. In particular, Molitz and Karan appeared to be having a ball. Skipping "William Tell," the band charged straight into "The Eleven," sung by Molitz. Greene began the vocals on "Lovelight" but the torch was quickly passed to Karan, who I think impressed a lot of folks with the force of his growling, Pigpen-quoting vocals. It was back to Greene for "Death Don't Have No Mercy," a song that seemed written for Campbell's back alley Stratocaster moans. More angelic harmonies followed when Campbell, Karan, Lesh and Greene sang "And We Bid You Goodnight." Then, after a mix up with the house lights, Greene sang the little performed Pigpen number "King Bee" for the encore.
What's on tap for tonight (Friday 5/16)? An educated guess says Workingman's Dead (1970) followed by American Beauty (1970) with perhaps special guests David Nelson on guitar and David Grisman on mandolin since each played on these albums, notably Nelson's lead guitar on "Box of Rain." Saturday and Sunday? That's a tougher call since there are so many possibilities; maybe Wake of the Flood (1973) and Mars Hotel (1974) on Saturday (if I ran the zoo, I'd ask Barry Sless to sit in on that night). And all bets are off for Sunday's likely epic finale. Whatever happens, it's every bit the gift, and then some, as the UC Santa Cruz archives.
05.13.08 :: Warfield Theatre :: San Francisco, CA
Set I Grateful Dead (First Album, 1967): The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion), Beat It On Down The Line, Good Morning Little School Girl, Cold Rain & Snow, Sitting On Top Of The World, *$Cream Puff War, *Morning Dew, *New Minglewood Blues, *Viola Lee Blues
Set II with Bob Weir Anthem of the Sun (1968): That's It For The Other One, I. Cryptical Envelopement, II. Quodlibet For Tender Feet
III. The Faster We Go The Rounder We Get, IV. We Leave The Castle, Nobody's Fault But Mine, New Potato Caboose, Born Cross-Eyed, Alligator, Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)
E: $Not Fade Away
*with Bob Weir, $with Dancers
05.14.08 :: Warfield Theatre :: San Francisco, CA
Set I Aoxomoxoa (Third Album, 1969): St. Stephen > Dupree's Diamond Blues, *Rosemary, Doin' That Rag, Mountains Of The Moon, China Cat Sunflower, *What's Become Of The Baby, Cosmic Charlie
Set II with Mark Karan Live/Dead (1969): Dark Star > St. Stephen > The Eleven > Turn On Your Lovelight > Death Don't Have No Mercy > And We Bid You Goodnight
E: King Bee
*with Teresa Williams on vocals
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