By: Michele Augis
Phil Lesh & Friends :: 09.21.08 – 09.25.08 & 09.28.08 :: Sweetwater Station :: Larkspur, CA
Before the first night of the Phil Lesh & Friends run at the Sweetwater Station in late September, the general consensus was a curious one. The first four "Sweetwater Sessions" were dubbed as rehearsals at the Larkspur (Marin County-based) establishment, but why did a lineup that had been playing together regularly for well over a year need to rehearse? It turns out that the answer was not a mysterious or cryptic one. Simply put, Phil Lesh, Larry Campbell, Steve Molitz, Jackie Greene and John Molo wanted to perform their fall tour material as seamlessly as possible. What that meant for Bay Area locals was that if you were fortunate enough to be at this roughly 150-person capacity venue on any of these eventful five nights, you would learn that they were plenty more than ready for the tour.
Phil Lesh by Susan J. Weiand
Night One: 09.22.08
Jam > Alabama Getaway, Mexican Girl, Let It Ride, West L.A. Fadeaway, Rock & Roll Blues, It Must Have Been The Roses, The Music Never Stopped, Built To Last, Althea > Cassidy, Cold Rain & Snow, Donor Rap/Band Intros, Brokedown Palace
Night One began with Phil proclaiming, "Check your expectations at the door," as they would be working things out more than usual. Right off the bat, everyone noticed that Molo was missing and behind the drums sat an unfamiliar face that turned out to be Phil Lesh's friend Jonathan Levine. Despite the fact that Molo wasn't holding down the fort, Levine actually held things together quite well. The Sweetwater Station had the feeling of a mountain lodge, with its vaulted ceiling, exposed wood beams and relaxed staff. If you were within ten people from the stage, it was PACKED, but go eleven people back, and there was plenty of room. Hard to say what the highlight of this set was. You can pick for yourself, because damned if I'll be able to pick my fave from Night One.
Night Two: 09.23.08
Greatest Story Ever Told, Ramble On Rose, Big Boss Man > I'm So Gone, Crazy Fingers > Easy Plateau, Don't Let Me Down > Wharf Rat > Dark Star > So Many Roads, Franklin's Tower, Donor Rap/Band Intros, U.S. Blues
Night Two drafted off the huge success from the previous evening. Expectations of what was going on inside the rehearsal space were quelled but not dormant. One expectation that was delivered was Phil's admiration for Ryan Adams. After throwing in Adams' "Let It Ride" the previous night, Jackie Greene gave a try at singing "Easy Plateau," though the real highlight came when Greene delivered an emotional "So Many Roads." Towards the end, Greene was just holding his head, mumbling out, "So many roads... so many roads." Might have been my highlight of the whole run.
Jackie Greene by Susan J. Weiand
Night Three: 09.24.08
Sugar Magnolia > Samson & Delilah, Next Time You See Me, Mr. Charlie, Uncle John's Band, Peaceful Valley, Stormy Monday Tease, Eyes of The World > Jam > Standing On The Moon, Sugaree, Throwing Stones > Not Fade Away, Donor Rap/Band Intros, Turn On Your Lovelight
Night Three kept the pace of the chill, groovy Marin County vibe. It should be noted that it wasn't an intense scene outside. There were a handful of ticket-less people on any of the nights, which really isn't too bad. The ticketing system in place was practically bulletproof, as it seemed that none ended up in the hands of scalpers. It was on this night that chatter of a fifth rehearsal being added was coming through the airwaves. Barry Sless was also present for all these rehearsals, intermittently sprinkling the sets with his soulful and steady pedal steel. Larry Campbell shined on the fiddle during "Peaceful Valley," another Ryan Adams nod. Crowd pleaser "Eyes of the World" melted into a sweet jam, which led to one of the more "rehearsal-friendly" songs of the sessions, "Standing on the Moon." Early in the song, it was easy to see that this one needed some more time, which was the whole point of the event. The band more than made up for the earlier part of the song with a stoic jam that was chilling.
Night Four: 09.25.08
Set One: Shakedown Street, Brown-Eyed Women, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Jam > The Other One > Truckin'
Set Two: Gone Wandering, Unbroken Chain > Jam > The Eleven, Down In The Valley Woe, Jam > Born Cross Eyed, Spots Of Time, Donor Rap/Band Intros, Fire On The Mountain
Night Four opened with the familiar romp, "Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart!" This set chugged along at a great pace, eventually taking the first set break of the run after "Truckin'." A few pleasant surprises for Set Two: Molo was back and Teresa Williams sang back up on the lovely Jackie Greene original "Gone Wandering." We even got to hear Steve Molitz sing during "The Eleven."
Campbell, Greene & Lesh by Susan J. Weiand
Night Five: 09.28.08
Good Lovin', Dancin' In The Streets, Row Jimmy, How Sweet It Is, Ball and Chain, Jack Straw, No More Do I > Magnolia Mountain, Lady With a Fan/Terrapin Station > Bertha, Donor Rap/Band Intro, Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad > And We Bid You Goodnight
Fifth night kept the set short and VERY sweet, with the most varied songwriting selection of the run, appropriately ending the Sweetwater Sessions with the traditional "And We Bid You Goodnight."
After retrieving my expectations, which were obediently checked at the door upon Phil's request on Night One, I can easily say that this was some of the finest Phil & Friends music that I have witnessed. This lineup is as sturdy and forthright as any band touring in America right now. Do not miss them if they are in your area!
Phil & Friends kick-off their 14-night run at New York's Nokia Theatre Times Square on October 31. Complete tour dates available here.
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