Phil & Friends | 10.31.08 | NYC

Words by: Brian Bavosa | Images by: Robert Chapman

Phil Lesh & Friends :: 10.31.08 :: Nokia Theatre :: New York, NY

Lesh & Greene :: 10.31 :: NYC
For the second consecutive year, Phil Lesh laced up a new pair of running shoes for an extremely ambitious set of shows that he simply calls the "Other New York City Marathon" (this show fell two days before the real marathon run throughout the five boroughs of New York City). Holding a 14-date residency in the heart of Times Square spread over three weeks at the Nokia Theatre, Lesh and his current group of Friends - John Molo (drums), Larry Campbell (guitar, stringed things, vox), Steve Molitz (keys, vox) and Jackie Greene (guitar, vox) - makes sure that there is plenty of opportunity for everyone who wants it to get their "Phil." Like 2007, this year also kicked off on the spookiest, scariest holiday of them all - Halloween.

As already mentioned, the Nokia sits only a few blocks from Dick Clark's New Year's Eve perch in Times Square, and getting through that area on a normal day is a headache. Throw in the fact that it was Friday, opening night of the tour, and oh yeah, Halloween, and it was enough to put anyone on edge. Upon entering the venue, which requires you to head underground via escalators and an obnoxious amount of Heineken advertising, I noticed that the crowd was slightly younger than what most Phil shows seem to attract, and that, quite simply, people were out to party. The stage was littered with scary decorations, including two huge, devil-like creatures, cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns and ghosts. The first treat of the night was additional Friend, Barry Sless on guitar and pedal steel, who played the entire show and added lovely, subtle texture to a number of selections.

They opened with "The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)," which was full of energy and welcoming, except for the fact that the sound seemed muddy and way, way too low - a problem that led to extreme chattiness and an overall lack of connecting all night, both between band and audience and band members themselves. A rare "Cream Puff War" showcased the aforementioned skills of Sless, while "Cold Black Devil" was the first taste of what Greene and his blues background have brought to P&F over the last two or so years. Greene, who is still far and away the kid of the group (he donned black face paint and lipstick), has matured into a confident player under the watchful tutelage of Professor Lesh. There was also a "Frankenstein" quote in this jam, a sign of the debut to come early in Set Two.

Jackie Greene :: 10.31 :: NYC
"It Must Have Been the Roses" was yet another example of missing the mark on this night. Not so much musically, but just in general. A slow ballad that I genuinely like, it was in the wrong spot here and only further promoted the lines at the bar, bathroom breaks and general sense of growing anticipation and anxiety for something epic. But again, I attribute this much more to the shitty sound throughout the night than the actual song itself. Another nugget from the Grateful Dead canon revived by Phil, "Mason's Children" wandered without really finding steady ground before set closer "Casey Jones," which proved to be a mere bump of coke, as opposed to the giant blast it can often be. Overall, a rather odd and forgettable Set One, and a mediocre way to start a tour.

Identical to 2007, the second set started with the band playing spooky music, with Lesh offstage reading poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. However, it might as well have been mumbling. I mean, completely indiscernible mumbo-jumbo that sounded more like the teacher from Peanuts than Lesh trying to read some classic horror. To be honest, at this point, I and many others in the Nokia were just miffed and wondering if the entire set would sound like this. For the most part, it did, and I might as well have been listening to it through my blown car speakers. "Boris the Spider," debuted exactly one year earlier, started off the music proper and seemed a lot less lively than last year. It was clear that the original, out-of-the-box thinking that went into '07 was lacking this year. Combined with bad sound and a rather rambunctious crowd that was not getting what they wanted, things seemed uninspired, lazy and forced.

"Frankenstein" was one exception, as it made its P&F's debut it appeared that perhaps the night might be saved by rare treats like this one. The entire middle chunk of the set was vintage Phil on paper, but again, missed locking up completely - especially with the crowd. "Cryptical Envelopment" was an appropriate tune/theme for Halloween, but I feel most of the younger audience was expecting something more. "Down in the Valley of Woe" again furthered the slower feel, but the hidden gem in this tune was the stellar nuances added by Sless - if you could struggle and remain focused enough to hear them. Greene also shined in this version with his country-tinged vocals.

Molitz & Sless :: 10.31 :: NYC
"What's Become of the Baby," a semi-bust out, featured Campbell's wife and frequent Phil collaborator, Teresa Williams on vocals and sporting a giant, black cloak with a hood covering her entire head. However, at nearly twenty minutes, this tune sucked all the life and energy out of the room with its slow, dark drone. Much like the poetry being read earlier, this song is based around words and in order to be affective needs to be understood, which Phil most certainly was not.

After the end of "Cryptical" came the clear highlight of the evening: a one-two punch of the triumphant "St. Stephen" followed by a vicious cover of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter." As quick as the energy was zapped minutes earlier, the first riff of "St. Stephen" injected it back into the venue, and again showed the keen addition of Sless's extra layer inside this band. But, even with this combo, and the traditional encore of "Werewolves of London," it was too late to salvage an opening night of high expectations, terrible sound and a general lack of cohesion that Halloween in NYC can produce. It seemed like the band was shaking off some rust and settling in for the final miles of the race. After all, this isn't a sprint. It's the "Other New York City Marathon."

10.31.08 :: Nokia Theatre :: New York, NY
Set One: Tuning > Golden Road > Jam > Cream Puff War > Cold Black Devil > It Must Have Been The Roses, Next Time You See Me, Mason's Children > Jam > Casey Jones
Set Two: Phil reads Edgar Allen Poe from offstage with band onstage playing scary spacey jam > Boris The Spider > Frankenstein*, Cryptical Envelopment > Down In The Valley Woe > The Other One > Jam > What's Become Of The Baby > Cryptical > Jam > St. Stephen > Gimme Shelter
Encore: Donor Rap/Intros, Werewolves Of London
* first time played

Campbell, Molo, Lesh, Greene :: 10.31 :: NYC

Continue reading for more images of Phil & Friends on Halloween...

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