PHIL LESH: OPERATING PRINCIPLES

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.


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