PHIL LESH & FRIENDS
Irving Plaza | New York City, NY | 05.21.02
Words by Aaron Stein | Photos by J Bau
Early show: Celebration, Night of 1000 Stars, The Real Thing, St. Stephen > The Eleven > Again and Again, Mason's Children, Liberty
Late show: Jam > Patchwork Quilt, Viola Lee Blues > Midnight Train > Viola Lee Blues > Rock and Roll Blues > Welcome To The Underground > Viola Lee Blues, No More Do I > Leave Me Out of This, Lovelight
Through the kindness of the jays I was lucky enough to hit both the early "abbreviated set" and the late show of the two-pronged Phil Lesh & Friends CD release party at Irving Plaza in NYC Tuesday night. Phil Lesh in Irving Plaza is a pretty sweet deal, almost two years to the day of seeing Trey & Co. back in Roseland; some guys get all the luck.
The expectations were for Phil to plug the album for the early show and open things up during the late set. The quick opener of "Celebration" followed this suggested route and it was plenty quick and short and had the pacing and timbre of a set-opening "Bertha." The minute the band started playing I could tell it was going to be a fun night; the sound was nothing short of marrow-chilling perfect and Phil was turned WAY UP and in '72-'78 form, so all the old Deadheads could be transported to wherever they came from. The playing in the first set was pretty much perfect from top to bottom. They ran through the first three songs with nary a pause and pretty much nailed the album material quite well. Quite well except for those nagging vocals which seemed even worse than usual for a Phil Lesh show. There was a point during "Celebration" that I thought to myself that the harmonizing between Phil, Warren and Rob was "not too bad" and wouldn't you know it, they fell apart from there. Agonizing at points, but to say the least, I wasn't there to hear Phil sing.
The short "Celebration" made way for a quickening "Night of 1000 Stars" which was very sweet. The band has been playing the new material a lot lately and the practice is apparently paying off. Although I would have picked any songs besides those three to start off the night, there was no denying that the band was very tight and had come to play. As the night wore on it became obvious that if you were there to see setlist theatrics and old-school nostalgia trips, this was not the show for you.
The opening notes to "St. Stephen" coming out of "The Real Thing" completely energized the crowd. The intro caused the entire audience, en masse, to move in sync and the floor started to resonate. What a completely wild experience, something I'd never felt before at dozens of shows at Irving Plaza: the floor just started bouncing and propelling the revelers upward. I don't know if it was just where I was standing or what, but it was pretty cool.
"St. Stephen > The Eleven" was the kind of lagniappe that no one was sure we'd get during the early show. Now seems to be as good as a time as any to introduce the overriding theme to the evening: Jimmy Herring. Less so in the first set, but really all night long, Jimmy was the driving force behind every jam that went down Tuesday night. "St. Stephen" provided an early chance for him to let loose, but Warren was right there with him for the time being. At points during the tune, the jamming took on a "Mountain Jam" aura - Dickey/Duane style - as Southern-fried guitars dueled it out with honor and dignity. Pistols at dawn was this doublet of "Stephen > Eleven," just well matched at every angle, the band finally simmering into that group-mind mentality that allowed the sharp definitions between each band member to blur into impressionistic imagery suggesting something greater than the individual parts and inciting nonsensical run-on sentences. It was one of the few moments that actually gave me that "this is enthrallingly intense" chills the entire night.
The spaciness that tumbled out of "The Eleven" was a real buzz-kill, considering the core-of-the-sun heat they had just laid on us and the sweat I had worked up trying to physically interpret such playing. "Again and Again" has the deliberately off-kilter pacing of a Thelonious Monk tune wrapped up in typical Robert Hunter lyrics. Reportedly the song is the result of Hunter putting words to a piece of music written by Jimmy Herring and it shows. Awkward but interesting, it's a shame there isn't a vocalist sweet enough to carry out such an endeavor in the ensemble. The show ended with a raucous "Mason's Children" which seemed to signal greater things for the second set as they romped with some of the first pure rock n' roll riffing of the night.
At some point during the first set I felt that while I had gotten fairly close to the stage, I wanted to be able to loogie on Herring during the late show seeing as the opportunity was there. So I made my way toward the exit and stopped in the doorway to listen to the "encore" of "Liberty" which might have been the vocal highlight of the evening, well-played through and through and capping off a solid and (yes) abbreviated set that was a much better mix of old and new than I was expecting. Hopped on-line for an hour and then secured a nice spot three men back from Jimmy for the late show.
I am very glad I did so, because if I wasn't there absorbing every note off that workhorse Fender straight out of Jimmy's amp I don't think I would have enjoyed the second set very much at all. There are only so many ways I can say "Jimmy ripped shit up" and only so many times I can say "Jimmy took a sick-ass solo here," so just understand that that is inherent to the rest of this review, which will probably quicken up as a result. It could have been because over the last two or three years my love for Jimmy's playing has grown exponentially to the point where I've convinced myself to fawn over every note he played. It could have been that I was standing dead in front of him; it could have been a lot of things. But basically, from where I was calling it, Jimmy flat out-played the rest of the band. He was just on another level than all the rest of them, except for possibly Phil at points. Sorry to say it, but Warren was either too tired or too something but he just didn't bring his A-game to the late show. Jimmy didn't seem to mind carrying the load, showing off his talents like a Miss America contestant in the swimsuit competition.
The set started off smokingly enough, with a patented "Jam" on the setlist indicating a free-flowing exchange of musical "ideas" between each band member. Phil's bass just oozed out of the woofers on the floor in front of me, creating this alternative ether in which the rest of the music flowed. This jam was superb and lent itself to the notion that the second set would be one of those opportunistic voyages into the heart of improvisational music itself. The lengthy foray into five-man experimentation was as focused and loose as the band would get all night, but it had to end and it ended with the first of many awkward transition of the evening, right into "Patchwork Quilt."
I blame John Molo for much of the nauseating flow of the set. He was just a little TOO prescient in bringing about segues and often his changes were abrupt and, honestly, just plain misplaced, which created a dizzying confusion between almost each song. Still the "Jam > Patchwork Quilt > [a thundering] Viola Lee Blues" was a great start to the set still filled with promise. "Viola Lee" opened up into more silliness on the jam frontier, with Jimmy just slicing the strings of his guitar. It's been a little while since I just plum stared at Mr. Herring play for an entire night, but I made it my mission to focus on him even when he wasn't soloing. Wise decision. They say the speed of light is the fastest anything can travel, and I have to believe that Jimmy gets pretty darn close sometimes - just unbelievably agile and quick on that Fender. I think "tone" is one of the major factors on deciding whether you will dig a certain guitarist or not. Jimmy's tone is a unique one which recalls pedal steel, slide guitar and sitar all with the recognition of his roots in country twang, Dickey Betts-inspired southern-rock and Sun Ra via Bruce Hampton wild jazz. Whatever it is, I love it and got plenty of it Tuesday night.
When the jam that had departed "Viola Lee" made its way to "Midnight Train," I had the premonition that the set would go "[new song] > Viola Lee > [album plug] > Viola Lee > [this is an album release party] > Viola Lee > [buy our album]." Sometimes it sucks to be right, doesn't it? I don't mind the new material too much, but needless to say, I would have been a lot happier if those gorgeous, muted Jimmy solos that sounded like they were going into "Terrapin" actually went into "Terrapin," or if those bass-bomb interludes from Phil that sounded like they were going to drop the band into a no-holds-barred "Other One" actually went into the "Other One." Half the fun of seeing Phil is the wild interpretations of the beloved Dead repertoire, the reinvention of 30 year-old riffs that breathes new life into material that was literally pronounced Dead years ago. I won't begrudge a man the right to pen new tunes, and for the most part, I think the new songs are quite good... I just don't want to hear them all in the same show.
So the show had become predictable and on top of that, the band wasn't even playing that well. The shakiness that had only taken root with the vocals in the first set seemed to permeate to other facets of the band's strengths. First and foremost, Warren was practically invisible. I don't know if it's just a coincidence, but the last three times I've seen this band, Warren has disappeared and Jimmy has lead the charge. There were many moments where Jimmy would be soloing and Warren just stopped playing and stepped to the side. This isn't the band that I fell ga-ga for over the last couple of years; the band that featured two-guitar rock and jam like no one had done before. I don't think Warren took more than five noteworthy solos the entire night and most of these were more going-through-the-motions type than truly inspired playing. Of course, Warren's "motions" put most others to shame, but still, he's set the precedence for excellence and we expect it from him now.
Rob Barracco also seems to have fallen into this trap of deja vu. His piano playing seems to have become a caricature of his best work from the past, seemingly just reworking the same solo over and over. His work on the organ, on the other hand, seems to translate his style much better and I was pretty impressed with the unique niche he's carved there with whirling fills and the occasional solo.
The stretch from "Midnight Train" to the final portion of "Viola Lee" was spotted with some nice work here and there, but overall it left much to be desired. Herring was literally on another page from everyone else, and as good as he is, he isn't suited for leading this quintet so the jamming and playing suffered from it. Still, it's fun to watch these musicians follow Jimmy down the ARU-rabbit-hole of weirdness sometimes.
The show finally ended with a groaning "Lovelight" that rocked a bit but didn't make up for the shortcomings of the earlier blahs. Like I said, if I wasn't standing in front of Jimmy the entire night, I probably would have had a terrible night... as it was, despite the lack of true inspiration, I actually had a blast. Standing 10 feet in front of the guy who has become my favorite guitar player and having him DELIVER is well worth the price of admission. And Phil Lesh & Friends is a band whose average payoff is not a bad paycheck for a day's work, not bad at all. You can't beat swimming in Lesh's Modulus in the intimate setting of Irving Plaza either. Mind-blowing or not, the moment was appreciated and I assure you I was smiling all night long.
And at least a paragraph's mention of the crowd. First off - great crowd, good energy, no "assholes" to be seen. One great thing about the evolved Phil Lesh "scene" is the mélange of types. Waiting in line my hat inspired a Rain Man-esque monologue on the three best "Jack Straw"s this drunken fella had ever heard, launching an extremely repetitious recount of Dead shows in the late 70s early 80s, while inside a group off to my side was rerunning the old "best Mike's Song's ever" debate. The healthy mix of old and new, passionate and dubious, local and just-flew-in-for-the-show, shirt-and-tied and tie-dyed generates an interesting energy that I always appreciate in addition to (or in spite of) the music we've all gathered to see.
I also was extremely pleased at the props the Phil crowd is finally giving Jimmy (although can't understand how, on a night like last night, they cheer louder for Warren than Jimmy). At one pause in the second set, after Jimmy was obviously generating wormholes in the space-time continuum, the crowd began a "Let Jimmy sing" chant that amused the band quite a bit. Jimmy muttered something quiet and bashful into Rob's mic and Phil gave a "Now it's Jimmy's turn in the barrel... Jimmy, they WILL get you to sing, eventually." Good fun!
The encore of Passenger had me thinking "oh great, maybe Warren will light it up now." But instead Jimmy took the main solo section, either by design or just because he could. [Insert comment about how sick Jimmy Herring is here. Man, is he sick or what??]
Ned-O-Matic (5 being average): early show - 5 (but short); late show - 3;
total: 4. Jimmy Herring (am I getting repetitive): 8.5
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