off the heels of his most extensive solo tour to date, the legendary Phil
Lesh has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that tremendous adversity can
be a springboard to newfound peaks for anyone with the determination to make it
happen and the support of good friends. In the last five years, Lesh has achieved
new musical zeniths, breathed fresh life into cherished songs that many believed
would never be heard again live and touched the souls of thousands of fans too
young to have experienced the joy of a Grateful Dead performance. In doing so,
Phil and Friends has emerged as one of the most potent forces in live music
Lesh’s chops are as nasty as they’ve ever been, playing the bass is only part
of what he’s doing these days. Phil brings people together – musicians, fans
and complete strangers who help each other without even meeting. The There
and Back Again tour featured over a dozen different supporting acts ranging
from legends like the Allman Brothers Band
and various Dead side projects, to emerging talent such as moe.,
The Disco Biscuits and Soulive.
Phil and Friends made festival stops along the way at The Gathering of the Vibes,
Bonnaroo and, more recently, Jazz Aspen, giving a nod to the bustling new music
scene that emerged in the Dead’s wake. He also paid tribute to his musical roots
at the Grateful Dead Family Reunion at Alpine Valley, with his band and The
Other Ones. All the while, Lesh extends his gratitude for a second chance
in music and life, encouraging anyone who hears him to give someone else the
same opportunity through blood and organ donations.
To see Phil Lesh perform is to take part in collaboration on a grand scale.
band ended its tour with a magical two-night stand Labor Day weekend at the
historic Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison,
CO with the help of Ratdog, Willie
Nelson and Family and an acoustic set by Warren Haynes. The shows were the
last ones on the immediate horizon for the quintet, leaving some to wonder what
the future will hold for Lesh’s current touring lineup.
Warren Haynes got the ball rolling the first night at Red Rocks with
his solo performance, as the crowd began to fill into the venue. Ratdog took
the stage next, opening things up with a jam that led into “Cassidy.” The band
seemed a little shaky during the first part of the set, with a few awkward transitions
and Bob Weir’s voice barely filtering through the mix. As the set moved
on, they began to pick up steam, and the crowd responded accordingly.
Brook’s saxophone complimented Weir’s take on “Eyes of the World,” which
segued into an interesting bass/drum/turntable jam by Rob Wasserman,
Kenny Brooks and DJ Logic respectively. Ratdog’s set ended on
a high note, with an appropriate version of “One More Saturday Night” that left
the crowd primed for the rest of the evening’s action.
Phil’s band seemed to be in a playful mood for Saturday’s performance – with several teases throughout the show. After an opening sequence of “Help on the Way > Slipknot!,” the band pulled away to take on a lengthy version of “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Haynes’s commanding slide mixed beautifully with Jimmy Herring’s precision finger work, and John Molo’s inventive drumming locked down the backbeat with Lesh’s masterful playing. The set ended with a blistering run through “Mason’s Children.”
second set got started with a short instrumental take on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant
Song” before an extended rendition of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” which showcased some
of keyboardist Rob Barraco’s most spirited playing of the weekend. The
set was long and strong, highlighted by “The Eleven > St. Stephen” – an inverted
take on the classic coupling obviously a wink to the Deadheads in the audience.
Keeping with the fun, the band book ended the night with a “Slipknot! > Franklin’s
Tower” encore to close out the suite that opened the show.
Willie Nelson and Family got things started on Sunday with an energetic set, kicked off by a crowd-pleasing performance of “Whiskey River.” Nelson was obviously thrilled to be in the venue – clapping his hands, pointing to the crowd between songs and trying on any piece of headwear that got tossed on stage, proving that the showman’s age is in no way indicative of his enthusiasm. Throughout the set he played old classics like “On the Road” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” while also sampling newer tunes such as “Maria (Shut up and Kiss Me)” from his recent release, The Great Divide. The set also featured an inspiring version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which segued into “I’ll Fly Away.”
It was dark when Phil’s band opened up with a raucous ride through “Shakedown Street,” getting the crowd moving early to Haynes’ soulful vocals. The tune flowed effortlessly into a stunning version of “China Cat Sunflower,” in which Lesh took hold of the reigns, steering the band into a dynamic instrumental section. Willie Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael appeared during “I Know You Rider” to stick around for the remainder of the first set, standing beside Herring and watching him closely for cues.
second set got started with a magnificent rendition of “Unbroken Chain,” and,
like the late set the night before, there wasn’t a pause in the music until
the band left the stage. Sliding in and out of epic masterpieces among the likes
of “Wharf Rat,” “Terrapin Station,” and “Viola Lee Blues,” the quintet weaved
a tapestry of sound only achievable by truly accomplished musicians. After extending
a few warm words of gratitude to the audience, Phil signaled the band to start
“Not Fade Away,” which ended with the emotional lyricism of “We Bid You Goodnight”
to end the tour.
As always, the band embraced and bowed before leaving the stage, but they seemed to relish in the moment a little longer this particular occasion. Perhaps they were soaking in the venue, or maybe it was simply because it was the last booked show for the group. It’s always hard to tell with these five musicians, who seem to treat every performance with the same kind of deep spirituality and friendship.
With the first tour by the reunited incarnation of The Other Ones lurking on the horizon and rumors swirling that Haynes wants to spend more time with Gov't Mule, it will be interesting to see what lies ahead for Lesh’s longest-running side project. They’ve managed to capture something that, in a sense, helped spark the newfound solidarity within the Grateful Dead community through nothing more than truly inspired playing. Though it may be anyone’s guess as to what will happen in the months ahead, it’s a pretty safe bet that Phil Lesh will be there searching for the sound.
Words: Travis Langdon
Photos: Tony Stack
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