Phil Lesh by Jay Blakesberg

Things change when Phil Lesh enters a room. There's a tangible shift to the atmosphere. Tall, unassuming, yet possessed of a mighty aura that lets you know you're in the presence of someone whose life has moved human consciousness a couple inches to the left. Case in point, the surprise appearance Lesh made at Gov't Mule's 1000th show in San Francisco this April. Despite the top-notch rockin' of the first set, an audible ooh-aah hit the audience as Phil snaked his way past the amps and cables, sending out invisible arms to gather us together. It's a not-so-quiet unity that arises from the man's character, an understanding that if he is present then every little thing is gonna be all right.

As he struck the first booming low notes on his bass the line between the outside world and the one coming alive inside the Warfield Theatre was established. A scattershot jerky jam shook off the last vestiges of what the musicians brought in with them, a custom akin to Sumos throwing salt before a match, yoga practitioners taking their first centering breaths in the mountain pose, the drawing of a sacred circle. It's an astral flare that lights up your internal horizon and says, "Be present! Be here with us! Now!" And then we're off.

"It's the power of music to access these states of consciousness or these realms of interaction," Lesh tells us. "Music is such a profound art form, it doesn't seem like we're justifying playing music if we can't explore new realms and open new areas of consciousness, states of being, states of mind, for ourselves and for our listeners. It's a collaborative effort. We all contribute to the opening of these doors."

He stresses the importance of the listeners in attendance, often thanking audiences for making the music with the band.

Photo by Susan J. Weiand
"It's a communal ritual in a way. We sort of all agree to get together and transform our consciousness," says Lesh. This in an era of fence building and private entertainments where there are less and less of such shared rites. "Well, not as long as we're playing!" he enthuses.

Born March 15, 1940 in Berkeley, Lesh studied trumpet and violin before finding his musical voice on the electric bass in the '60s. He studied classical composition at Mills College with Italy's Luciano Berio, who composed works inspired by such varied sources as the Bible and writer Italo Calvino as well as combining electronic music with the more austere musique concrete. But the most significant step in his musical maturation came when he joined the Warlocks, a San Francisco psychedelic jug band, in 1965. This group would soon transform into the Grateful Dead, a band that has forever changed the landscape of rock, complicating easy categorization, stretching themselves and their listeners for more than 30 years as they make what they all refer to as simply "Grateful Dead Music."

"I guess I'd have to say it's all music at the bottom line. I know that there's a theory of rock 'n' roll that's been promulgated over the years by critics really, not musicians, that states that rock 'n' roll is incapable of expressing anything deep or profound or complex," states Lesh.

"To me, that's a lot like Stravinsky saying in his lecture The Poetics of Music that music by it's nature is incapable of expressing anything at all. What he meant was his music was incapable of expressing anything at all. That turns out to be true if you listen to Stravinsky's music. It's brilliant and it's wonderful but there's a lot of it that's mostly surface."

He continues, "To my mind, what we play is not so much rock or jazz or anything else but something that transcends all those categories or is perhaps is part of a larger category you might consider improvisational music. Since our ideal of improvisation is collective improvisation it's necessarily gonna be more detailed, more diverse, more complicated than the kind of music where it's just a solo with accompaniment."

Photo by Jay Blakesberg
Citing jazz pillar John Coltrane as one of his main personal artistic heroes, Lesh tells us, "The Coltrane Quartet and the long jams they would do in one chord was a defining factor for us because it was a demonstration that this could be done. There's so much room inside this one chord. It's only one chord and you can never ever get to the bottom of it. Believe me, that was a major influence on us."

After the death of Jerry Garcia on August 9, 1995 from a heart attack in his room at a substance abuse center in Forest Hills, CA, the future of this music fell into question. What followed for Lesh and the other members of the Dead was not an end to things but a turning of a wheel towards the light, towards creation, with each member throwing themselves into new creative outlets. What was unclear was whether or not the surviving members of the Grateful Dead would ever perform together again after the dissolution of the short lived Other Ones, the group they formed in the immediate wake of Garcia's passing.

Phil & Friends :: Photo by Tony Stack
After a period of years apart, the Other Ones regrouped in August of 2002 and toured intermittently for much of that year. In February of the following year they officially changed their name to The Dead, an abbreviation used by fans since they had first christened themselves in the '60s. More than a symbolic gesture, it signaled the rebirth of their shared commitment to this music. This summer finds the band embarking on their longest tour yet since regrouping and Lesh is nakedly excited by the prospect.

"It's really kind of neat because during that period we weren't playing together we were all playing separately. Bobby (Weir) had Ratdog, Mickey (Hart) had bands, I had Phil and Friends. We were all going out and developing the music. It was a revelation to me to realize that Grateful Dead material, the songbook, the body of work, was capable of holding up any number of interpretations," states Lesh.

"My thing was to bring a whole bunch of different players through my band in the period of about a year and when I finally found the lineup that had the kind of chemistry I knew I'd always been looking for we settled in and started really opening up to some of that material. Bobby was doing the same thing, Mickey was doing the same thing and we came back together and we're better at what we do. We all bring more to the table than when we were playing together back in the day. To me it's very stimulating to play with these guys again and know we still have something to say to each other."

Photo by Michael Weintrob
Anyone who's had their ear to the ground in the past couple years has probably been struck by the vast difference in arrangements, tone, and pacing laid on the Dead's catalog by these various incarnations. At times it's hard to believe one is listening to the same song that they first encountered on American Beauty or any other slab of vinyl. Lesh comments, "The thing about music is that it's infinitely malleable. You can take a song that's been played a certain way for 20 years and play it a new way and it's almost a completely different song."

"I found that Grateful Dead music, amongst other types of music, has that capability to be almost chameleonic. It takes on the color and the shape of whoever is performing it at the moment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's fun to take these songs and do them a different way. For instance, in our band (Phil and Friends) when we did 'New Speedway Boogie' I straightened it out so instead of having it be a shuffle like 'Truckin’' I made a rock song out of it. It gives it a whole different flavor. It's almost like a whole different song but it's not."

"Those interpretations, those versions are all latent in the song," Phil continues. "The song is just a framework, a skeleton. It's up to us to flesh it out whichever we can. To me, the operative principle is the kind of variety we can bring to it. Not so much how can we do it the way we've always done it and do that well, but how can we do it in a new way and do that really well."

In addition to Lesh, all of the other members of The Dead, save for Jimmy Herring, joined Warren Haynes for a long second set at the Mule concert in San Francisco. Fresh from rehearsals for their summer outing, they crackled with switched-on fervor. Phil, in particular, bounced with visible pleasure as they played with a snarling, punkish intensity that slam danced with chaos more than once. No aging hippie band this but something quite vital and a reminder that even if we don't think about it all the time we would miss this music if it weren't being constantly cared for by these men. Having them simply appear, as if by magic, on this stage is like their gift for sliding into treasured songs in the most unexpected ways.

"Oversoul" by Alex Grey
"That's the most fun part, especially when we sneak in through the back door or through a side door or just parachute in," states Lesh. "For instance, we'll be playing along some song, any song, and we'll figure out a way to get to the groove of the next song but without going into the key of the next song. It's funny how key dependent or pitch dependent the recognition of these songs is. We can be grooving along on say the groove to 'China Cat' in a different key and no one will notice. As soon as we change the key, everyone goes 'ahhhh' (the collective gasp familiar to any Dead aficionado)."

As anyone who's spent time with live recordings by this band knows, there are great rewards for paying close attention to these subtle shifts.

"That commitment to the listening experience pays off. Really what it is, and I talk about this a lot in my book (Lesh's upcoming autobiography), is the group mind. It's something that's bigger than all of us put together," adds Lesh. "The sum is greater than the whole of the parts? Well, the band is greater than the sum of the six musicians or seven musicians that comprise it and the musical experience is greater than the sum of all the consciousnesses of the band and the audience that make it happen. That's why it's a little bit like church."

This comment sparks off a discussion of this writer's long held belief that the Grateful Dead are part the continuum of American Romantic thinkers that starts with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who came up with the notion of the Over-Soul, an all-encompassing spiritual bond that exists between everything on earth and the heavens above.

Phil readily replies, "The music is given us by the Over-Soul. To me, it's always playing out there and we just have to open the door and open the valve and let it come down. That's what happens when we close the circuit with the audience."

Jimmy Herring in The Dead
Photo by Susan J. Weiand
So, what about the parts that make up the sum of this particular whole? He begins discussing his guitarists in both Phil and Friends and the Dead, Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring.

"Here's two guys who didn't know from Grateful Dead. When I started working with Jimmy he'd say, 'I never heard this song before. It's great!' These guys are just musicians, accomplished musicians. Again, it speaks to the versatility, the depth of the body of work, that these guys who are just regular musicians can come in and grasp what it is that's needed to interpret these songs. And understand that we can do 'Stella Blue' Warren's way. Warren sings 'Stella Blue' beautifully but it's not Jerry."

"Jimmy is really kind of a poet. One little note can carry a whole lot of weight and meaning," states Lesh. He laughs when I tell him I literally bowed down before Herring the first time I saw him with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. There's a kind of epic power to both Herring and Warren Haynes that syncs up nicely with the Homeric vibe inherent in Lesh's music.

About Jeff Chimenti, who will be the only keyboard player in The Dead this year with Rob Barraco leaving to join Chris Robinson and New Earth Mud, Lesh comments, "It's really neat to work with Jeff. He's got this demented mind. He sticks these twisted ideas in the middle of the jams and suddenly we're off in this totally alien space."

I relate that to the first time I saw Chimenti perform with Les Claypool's Frog Brigade and he was wearing a Mad Hatter's top hat. Phil responds, "He sounds like he's wearing that hat no matter if it’' on his head or not. That's really a delight. He can just interject that weirdness at any moment. The neat thing about him is you never know when it's going to happen. We can just be blithely playing along and all of he's going 'hnee hnee hnee.' Ooh, what's that? Let's go there! And everybody jumps on that. That's a very good way to look at the process by which we find our way into these new realms and find our way to these islands of order in the sea of musical chaos."

About the summer tour, Phil says, "I'm already feeling that it's going to be meaningful for us musically." They are keeping openers, save for a string of solo acoustic sets from Haynes, to a minimum. They need all the playtime they can get. "It's a real drag to run up against a curfew when you're in full flight," says Lesh.

As for what material we'll be hearing, the possibilities are wide open.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg
"I want to play it all. In Phil and Friends we brought back a lot of songs that had been dropped from the Grateful Dead repertoire like 'Viola Lee (Blues).' We never played that much at all after 1972. I want to play it all and I want to continue to create new stuff to play."

When asked if he ever has trouble remembering all these hundreds of songs, he comments, "No, we have a book. We got 'em in a book. Or there's always Deadbase. In some cases, some of the guys in my band have a better handle what the Grateful Dead used to do than I do. They remember more of the details than I can. That's always handy."

Is it ever hard to muster up the right parts for each number at a moment's notice?

"That's the name of the game really. If you don't have that tremendous backlog--that's not the right word... If you don't have such a large book then you end up repeating yourself too often. And that's something early on that the Grateful Dead decided--we were going to do our darnedest not to repeat ourselves."

For a long time Lesh has endeavored to tell a story or weave a fable in his set list construction, a tradition that will continue this summer and especially in the future with his own band.

"Sometimes it's more subtle than others. Sometimes the sequence of the lyrics will tell a story, sometimes it's the music that tells a story, or a slightly different story than the lyrics do but the whole is what the real story is," explains Lesh. "There's a concept in baroque music called tonal allegory which describes a downward journey, keys that have sharps in them to keys that have flats in them AND an upward journey from keys that have flats in them to keys that have sharps in them. I like to use this principle in set lists also so that the keys of the songs will tell a story that's not perhaps as obvious as the one told in the lyrics. Sometimes they take a different path but the totality of the impression is what happens, that's what we're looking for."

The Dead at Bonnaroo 2003 :: Photo by Tony Stack
For the untrained ear that most of us bring to the experience, we can sense they've made that trip without really knowing how we got where we find ourselves standing. Sometimes it's the mood that lingers more than any concrete thought.

"In a film, part of the story is told by the camera. Not even so much the angles used but the way the light is represented, whether it is gloomy or dark, the kind of filters they use or the colors you see on the screen," adds Lesh.

He stands as a major figure for the new generation of jam bands, spiritual descendents of something he helped start. When I suggest that elder statesman isn't the right word for him he offers up "Godfather" with all the Coppola-like weight of that word ringing off his tongue.

"This kind of improvisation, the way it's developed in the last 25 years, it sort of makes musicians an offer they can't refuse because it's really a lot of fun to take these songs and open them up and go somewhere in a collective spirit," Lesh comments. "It's really wonderful that the whole spirit of that has been grasped and picked up on and expanded by these younger bands. I just say more power to them. Keep on rockin'!"

The return of the Dead coincides with a live concert scene that's been rejuvenated by this new generation of musicians who embrace this style of playing. Phil says, "When you contrast it to what's available on record and what's on MTV and all that it's almost like they're different worlds." This loose network of acts is also quietly blossoming without the help of traditional channels like radio, television, or big record companies.

"That's also to be commended highly. I'm very pleased about that. Frankly, I think record companies, the record industry, and record stores are over. Radio is over, too. It's been trivialized like everything else."

Like many, he laments the loss of freeform commercial radio like the Bay Area's KSAN in the '70s. He mentions names like Larry Miller and Voco and reminisces, "I literally remember sitting for hours listening, just sitting in my living room listening to the radio, because there was one great thing after another."

Photo by Susan J. Weiand
While we have Phil Lesh's ear it seemed wise to have him help dispel or confirm a few long standing rumors. Let's start with the widely propagated story that the Grateful Dead plan to open their own performance venue in San Francisco.

"Off and on, there have been plans made to do that sort of thing. It keeps coming up and ultimately we always decide we don't want to be in that business," Phil tells us. "We'd have to be in the business of promoting concerts. We couldn't play there ourselves all the time so we would have to book other acts and we just don't want to be in that business. It takes away energy from other stuff."

How about the symphonic rendition of Dead tunes you were reportedly working on a few years ago?

"I decided not to do the symphonic version of Grateful Dead (music) for many reasons. I was looking for closure. This was right after Jerry died and I was looking for closure with that music so I could go on and do something else. Turns out, the music won't let me have closure. It wants me to keep playing (it). It wants to be reinterpreted. The music is like a living thing, it's a living organism and in some mysterious way it's only alive when we're playing it, digging into it and expanding it and playing it in new ways. And it wants to live like any other living thing. I just realized there wasn't going to be any closure. I was gonna keep playing this music, I was going to keep reinterpreting it and there was no way in hell I was going to freeze it, to petrify it in amber."

However, he does want to do some symphonic writing eventually. "Might start doing something for dance," adds Lesh. "I do have some music that wants to come out in this manner."

And finally, what about putting The Vault (the G.D.'s archive of live and studio recordings) on the Internet?

Mickey Hart
"I want to do it real bad. I want it all to be out there so everybody can just have it. If you want all the 'Dark Stars' ever played they'll be available online. That's our plan and our goal."

Returning to more philosophical terrain, in a highly political election year, the subject of one's influence as a counter-culture icon comes up. Are music and politics good bedfellows?

"That's a good question but I'm not sure they're really compatible," Lesh states. "The Grateful Dead have never endorsed a candidate or performed for a candidate. Frankly, the use of music in political campaigns is like an advertising jingle. It cheapens it."

He continues, "Personal influence may be one thing but I don't feel music belongs (in this realm). As I said, it's just like advertising, which to me trivializes. Music is sacred. It really is. We used to say that any place we play is a church and we didn't say that lightly. What we're about is not entertainment or advertising. Mickey used to say we're in the transportation business, we move minds."

However, both Hart and Lesh made an exception recently when they performed at a John Kerry fundraiser. Mayhap our current President inspires all of us, even those dedicated to the separation of art and state, to make allowances in order to shift things in a more positive direction.

Photo by Susan J. Weiand
Besides the musical ones already mentioned, Lesh has been influenced by a diverse array of artists including sculpture Umberto Boccioni and painters Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock. He also finds a particular resonance in poetry, citing William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and Walt Whitman as touchstones. He says, "It's all food, food for the soul, and the soul takes it and transmutes it in its mysterious ways."

Poetry makes particular sense in regards to his music because it too requires a leap between stanzas by the audience. The listener, in this case, must make an act of faith to truly participate in the becoming unfolding around them. Without that existential jump across the borderline from the ordinary to the extraordinary the music doesn't fully breathe.

"It's a collaborative effort: we need good listeners just like we need good musicians. Sometimes it's just a matter of openness, a willingness to take a little trip," Lesh explains.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg
"It's like when you open a book for the first time, you don't know where the story is going to take you. Why should you expect that from music? Why should you expect music to take you to the same place you've always been? Maybe it's because people don't listen to music for itself anymore. It's always background as they're doing something else. The radio's playing or you got your stereo going as you're cooking dinner or whatever. It seems like music today is kind of trivialized by the process of how it's disseminated. So, when you have a group of people together in a concert hall who are putting themselves into the music it makes all the difference in the world to the depth and the weight of what's going on."

For better than 30 years, Phil Lesh has been making that difference, adding the weight AND the uplifting joy to literally millions of lives. But when he began doing this in the '60s there was no inkling that his life would run the way that it has.

"I don't think any of us thought we'd still be doing this in five years to be honest with you," explains Phil. "Just because of the nature of the music business at that time. We saw bands crashing and burning after six months. But the one thing we knew from the very beginning, almost from the first rehearsal, was that we had the chemistry and it could be art. It wouldn't be just silly pop songs. It could be art in the sense that Coltrane's art, that Miles Davis is art. Or like a Japanese painter painting on silk, where you can't go back over it, is art. As ephemeral as it can be we knew we were onto something really important. But, of course, nobody knew how long it was going to last."

The truth of their music, the truth of this man's character, has played out rather admirably in the way it's been woven into the fabric of so many lives.

"I think it's wonderful that it has. And that still today when my band goes out or when Ratdog goes or The Dead goes out we see four generations of people in the audience. It's like nothing else."

Words: Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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