PHIL LESH: OPERATING PRINCIPLES

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."


Take full advantage of all JamBase has to offer by signing up for an account!


You'll receive

show alerts

when your favorite artists announce shows, be eligible to enter contests for

free tickets

, gain the ability to

share your personalized live music calendar

and much more. Join JamBase!