Furthur & Friends | 03.12 | San Francisco

Words by: Garrin Benfield | Images by: Dave Vann

Furthur & Friends :: 03.12.10 :: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA

Lesh & Robinson - Furthur :: 03.12 :: San Francisco
It's safe to say I wouldn't have been anywhere on March 12 other than with the guys ushering in the last Golden Age of the Grateful Dead. Furthur, the latest (and possibly greatest) reincarnation of The Boys, gathered for a tour-closing three set show at Bill Graham Civic to celebrate Phil Lesh's 70th Birthday and to raise money for Haitian Earthquake relief. And though this was a benefit for the Unbroken Chain Foundation, the preeminent concern was throwing a party with and for one of the most important musicians in rock 'n' roll, and certainly one of the Bay Area's most celebrated exports.

Ironically, Lesh has become more of a household name in the outside world since Jerry Garcia died, as various groups under the name "Phil Lesh and Friends" have relentlessly toured the country and become a staple at summer festivals. But Lesh's contribution to popular (and weird!) music was felt early. Soon after he taught himself to play electric bass in The Warlocks, he quickly established a singular, linear approach to what was traditionally an instrument strictly reserved for a support role.

It would not be an exaggeration to include Lesh in a list that includes towering figures of the low-end like Charles Mingus, James Jamerson, and Jaco Pastorius, in terms of the indelible imprint he has left on the possibilities of his instrument. Phil's approach and tone are unmistakable once you are familiar with them: a chunky, flat-picked attack that relentlessly propels, cloaked in an EQ wave that somehow allows for both the richest low end "bombs" conjurable and the treble necessary to cut through dense aggregations like the one we witnessed on this night.

Furthur & Friends :: 03.12 :: San Francisco
Like the other members of the Grateful Dead, Phil has a deserved reputation as possibly one of the coolest geeks in rock, a reputation aided by his interest in modern 20th century symphonic and experimental music, and involvement with such out-there projects as Seastones with composer Ned Lagin. But Phil always had deep groove and soul, and though some stories suggest the contrary, he was a great ally and supporter of Pigpen and has always gone out of his way to keep the R&B roots of the Dead alive. On this night alone, Phil chose to play three songs associated with Pig: the rare "Two Souls in Communion," "Easy Wind" and "Hard to Handle," a clear nod to the formative days of this band that began stretching out their limited repertoire at long, four-set shows in the mid-sixties and accidentally birthed a new genre of music.

As the Grateful Dead stretched its wings in the hugely inspired period that spilled over into the early-70s, however, it became clear that Jerry was Phil's true musical brother. Together, on a nightly basis, they wove the single note improvisations that seared the band's identity into our cultural consciousness. At my second Dead show in the mid-80s, I recall hearing a passing Head say, "When Phil's on, the band's on," a phrase that intrigued me but I did not fully compute then. The rumbling, sometimes sub-sonic importance of Phil's playing might be the last musical element to filter into a new listener's head - especially at a questionably mixed stadium show - but once it's in there, there is really no substitute (even Alfonso Johnson, who subbed for Phil in The Other Ones, comes to mind). Phil literally had to conceive and build the bass that could accomplish what he heard in his head, and for that he should also always be acknowledged as a progenitor of the modern, active pickup electric bass. And though never particularly celebrated for his singing (maybe an understatement), he still managed to compose one of the enduring classics of the country/folk rock period, the lilting, gorgeous "Box of Rain," a song that elicits rich memories and emotions from people who were alive to hear it drifting from dorm room windows in 1970 and those who first encountered it on hissy third-generation bootleg cassettes.

Furthur & Friends :: 03.12 :: San Francisco
How fitting then that Phil chose to open his birthday show with a gentle acoustic set that included three of the towering pieces of the Hunter/Garcia catalog that he has long publicly admired: "Ripple," "Brokedown Palace" and the stunning "Attics of My Life." Bobby sang/whispered "Ripple" with genuine, time-worn sensitivity, Jackie Greene paid perfect respect to "Brokedown," and all the vocalists, including Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), "the girls" (Zoe Ellis and Sunshine Garcia Becker) and John Kadlecik seemed to breathe with "Attics" until the room had truly unified. Phil's beautiful take on "Mountains of the Moon" was also a highlight - it seems years of attempts at getting this song right have finally paid off, with Phil not forcing the vocal but rather very calmly allowing it to happen. With the new arrangement of "Mountains," Phil has accomplished quite a feat, as the slow psychedelic dirge feels ancient in its roots and quite contemporary in its delivery. The forethought that went into this acoustic set clearly portended very good things for the night and also immediately thrust us into a contemplative state usually reserved for late in a second set. It was almost as if we were experiencing the normal emotional arc of a show in reverse. Disorienting and wonderful.

The electric segment of the evening began with a stand-alone "Scarlet Begonias," sung by Jackie and driven by drummer Joe Russo in his first appearance of the evening. During the jam, Kadlecik revealed that over the past few months with Furthur he has been allowed, possibly for the first time in his professional career, to truly search for his own voice on lead guitar. The results were refreshingly un-Garcia like, including some microtonal bends that I associate more with Indian classical music than psychedelic rock. Weir followed with a surprise "New Minglewood Blues," from which he has extracted the normal blues turnaround that we are so used to hearing. It's so unexpected that the band still seems to struggle with it a bit. It was akin to the strange effect of Weir adding extra bars between verses of a song that you are used to hearing straight. This muscular version proved itself worthy of this important second set slot, though, and the rest of this long set got raunchy, bluesy and occasionally sloppy, and included so many twists and turns as to be pretty disorienting at times. "Viola Lee Blues," the signature Furthur jam vehicle so far, was broken up into three separate appearances. Chris Robinson screamed mightily during "Hard to Handle," and the set came to a joyous, if severely mid-tempo conclusion with "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Sugaree." I tend to like my Dead humble and fragile, but if you lean towards the dark, heavy blues that emerges with this many people onstage, this set was for you.

Furthur & Friends :: 03.12 :: San Francisco
At just after midnight, the band casually reassembled onstage and broke into a very groovy "Not Fade Away" jam, led by Phil and the drummers (John Molo was now onstage) and decorated by the guitarists. As three floats festooned with Mardi Gras-like decorations slowly made their way across the floor, the band jammed on, but did not sing "Not Fade Away." Instead, where the vocals would have begun, everyone broke into "Happy Birthday" for Phil and hundreds of balloons dropped onto the floor. The band resumed the Bo Diddley jam for another four minutes or so then just sort of stopped. I'm really not sure what happened at this point, but Bobby said, "Well, we're going to take another short break, but this one's going to be truly short." The packed hall was vocal in its confusion, as some momentum had definitely been established, but then just laughed it off and chalked it up to one more strange Dead moment.

"Playin' In The Band" was a good way to launch into new territory, establish a whole new direction, and erase any confusion from the last segment. The jam out of "Playin'" was dense, with three lead guitarists in Weir, Greene and Kadlecik trying to accommodate one another, and doing so quite well. Weir, in particular, demonstrated such a welcome hospitality all night to his fellow players, not indulging in any of the confusing hand signals or last minute cues we've come to expect from him at some of these high profile shows. "St. Stephen" began a show ending sequence of classic tunes that culminated in an inspired, unexpected choice for the ballad slot, "Comes a Time," sung with real heart by Chris Robinson. It felt a bit off-kilter to have Kadlecik play a tearful, flanged-out solo, but then not resume the lead vocal. It occurred to me at this point in the show how little he had sung at all, in fact. ("Lazy River Road," which he handled with grace, seemed like eons ago, being the second song of the night.) The last true surprise of the show came next, a breakneck "Cream Puff War," played with all its mid-60s impatience and bluster intact, and accompanied by two female go-go dancers on either side of the stage. I actually heard some grousing from some Heads about this clearly ironic, showbiz move. I thought it was perfectly good-natured, especially since the song lasted all of two minutes. That's gotta be a record for brevity for these guys!

"Franklin's Tower" literally jumped out of "Cream Puff War" and signaled the end of an inspired night. And though the band frequently tests audience stamina these days, the huge, show ending ovations these guys have been getting attest to the feeling that few are anxious to see them go anywhere. It's as if we are taking this opportunity to really express how lucky we feel to have been a part of this music, and how surreal it is that it's still rumbling forward, and right here in the center of San Francisco no less, the place of its inception. Phil seemed genuinely humbled before the encore, saying, "Thank you for making this, I would have to say, THE most special birthday of my life." The response? Another thunderous round of applause. Thank you, Phil!

Phil's 70th Birthday :: 03.12.10 :: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA

Set I Acoustic without Russo and with Jackie Greene, Steve Molitz & Chris Robinson:
Ripple, Lazy River Road, Fennario, Two Souls in Communion, Brokedown Palace, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, They Love Each Other, Mountains of the Moon, Attics of My Life

Set II without Lane and with Jackie Greene & Chris Robinson:
Scarlet Begonias, Minglewood Blues, Easy Wind > New Speedway Boogie, Viola Lee Blues > High Time > Caution Jam > Viola Lee Blues > Hard To Handle, Viola Lee Blues > Like A Rolling Stone > Sugaree

Set III without Lane and with Jackie Greene, Steve Molitz & John Molo:
Not Fade Away Jam* Float Parade, Happy Birthday Phil!*, Balloon Drop, Not Fade Away Jam > Playing in the Band > Jam > St. Stephen > The Other One > Elevator > Unbroken Chain, Comes a Time > Cream Puff War* with dancers > Franklin's Tower

Encore: Johnny B. Goode

Setlist courtesy of phillesh.net

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