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.
Phil & Friends :: Photo by Tony Stack
"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,"
"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."
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."
Photo by Michael Weintrob
"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
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.
"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."