PHIL LESH: OPERATING PRINCIPLES

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."


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