Bob Weir & Phil Lesh Kick Off Tour At Radio City Music Hall – Setlist, Videos & Recap
Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh have been performing together in various configurations for over 50 years, yet this month they are taking a new format on the road. Billed as “Bobby & Phil Duo Tour Spring 2018,” the pair has joined forces for a six-date concert featuring just the two of them and the promise of guests along the way. The first of those six shows took place on Friday night at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, an important venue in Grateful Dead history, and a wonderful place to watch the duo’s stripped-down performance of GD repertoire classics.
The Grateful Dead celebrated their 15th anniversary in 1980 with shows at both The Warfield in their native San Francisco and eight nights at Radio City Music Hall. Each of those October ’80 performances at Radio City started with an acoustic set and Weir and Lesh tapped into that unplugged spirit on Friday. Weir wound up performing all but a few minutes of the opening stanza on acoustic on Friday, while Lesh – as he did in 1980 – used his typical electric setup. The big surprise was that when Bobby and Phil emerged, they were joined by Wally Ingram on a rig that was part drum set and part percussion set up. Ingram had performed with Weir a handful of times in the past and is most likely best known to JamBase readers for his time in Stockholm Syndrome and for his participation in various Steve Kimock projects.
The trio opened with a vibrant “Uncle John’s Band” that saw Weir and Lesh’s voices mesh nicely. Ingram added percussive fills to “Uncle John’s Band” and then left the stage for the majority of the frame. Phil Lesh has a style that lends itself perfectly to this format, “lead bass.” And while Bob Weir is a rhythm guitarist, he has always used unusual voicings. The duo often created a big noise, especially for two musicians. Yet at times, the absence of a lead guitar player was felt. But when one buys a ticket to a Bob Weir & Phil Lesh duo show, they have to know what they are signing up for as Bob Weir has never been a lead guitarist.
Bob and Phil quickly showed they wouldn’t just stick to the Dead’s most popular material, as they dug deep for “Operator” for the second song of the evening. The Grateful Dead only performed the Ron “Pigpen” McKernan-penned American Beauty gem a handful of times in 1970. Lesh handled vocals with “Operator” fitting his voice nicely. Weir and Lesh struggled to end the song correctly. Bobby admitted to the crowd, “It occurs to me that we never got around to rehearsing the end of that one.” In typical GD fashion the duo wasn’t exactly tight and it seemed as if they were working out some of the arrangements on the spot. “Ramble On Rose” was played early in the set, likely for its reference to “New York City,” but Weir flubbed that line. Yet one of the more interesting parts of the performance was that the pair would start a song and it would take a little while for fans to realize what exactly they were playing. It brought an extra feel of excitement to the concert, as the duo most definitely kept it weird.
Weir was chatty throughout the night, though a few times he cut off his own stories and just started the next song. He talked about how good “Friend Of The Devil” had been to them before beginning the concert’s second of three tunes from American Beauty. Bobby’s playing during the jam of “Friend Of The Devil” was among the highlights of the evening for the guitarist. He strung together riveting rhythmic patterns that were as close to leads as it gets for Weir. The duo showed their improvisation prowess as they worked “Bird Song” into “He’s Gone.” Phil and Bob connected on a particularly cool tempo to back the “like a steam locomotive rolling down the track” vocal. Over 45 years after the Dead debuted “He’s Gone,” the pair brought something completely different to the Hunter/Garcia classic. A funny moment took place before “Bird Song,” when Bob Weir told a story of living in an abandoned summer camp in the room next to Pigpen and recalled hearing Pigpen getting it on with Janis Joplin and Janis yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” in glee.
As mentioned, Bob Weir told a few stories with Phil Lesh weighing in at times. Bob introduced “Lost Sailor” > “Saint Of Circumstance,” which saw the return of Wally Ingram and ended the first set, by telling its origin story. Weir was living in Wyoming for a summer and was working on a piece of music when he needed the “powers that be” to act as his muse and help inform the composition. He went for a drive when it hit him, “I just don’t fucking know what I’m looking for, BUT I just gotta do it. I’ve got to keep at it. Sure don’t know what I’m looking for…” For Deadheads, the look into Weir’s brain and songwriting process was fascinating. “Sailor”/”Saint” worked well in the trio format and Bobby sang his heart out throughout the entire pairing.
The Radio City crowd was into the show from the start. Most stood throughout despite the mellow nature of the music. Fans sung along, yet it didn’t turn into a singalong where the audience was louder than the musicians. The lighting and set design were minimalist. At a few points in the evening, beautiful designs would be projected on the iconic ceiling of the venue. Dead & Company’s performances are accompanied by grandiose displays of Grateful Dead iconography. There was no sign of stealies or skeletons or roses at Radio City, which was a bit refreshing.
For the second set, Bob and Phil were accompanied by Wally Ingram throughout. Ingram’s contributions were tasteful and key to keeping the guitarist and bassist focused. When Weir and Lesh were at their best, they were partaking in a musical conversation where each was adding to what the other was doing. At times during the first set they were more talking over each other, but they connected well and played off each other nicely throughout the closing stanza. The trio opened the frame with “Loose Lucy,” the Jerry song Weir has most made his own since Garcia’s passing. Next up was “Peggy-O” featuring tasteful vocals from Phil.
Bobby started to tell a story about a duck, when Phil requested he tell the Yellow Dog story instead. Weir seemed ready to comply but instead began “Me & My Uncle.” The concert moved on with a highly exploratory “Mountains Of The Moon.” While Lesh’s vocals fit “Peggy-O” well, there were a few cringe-worthy moments in “Mountains Of The Moon,” despite the numerous versions Phil has played over the past two decades. However, the interplay between the three during the jam more than made up for it. Weir and Lesh eventually transitioned from “Mountains” into the end of the “Bird Song” that they had left uncompleted in the first set.
The emotional high point of the evening came towards the end of the second set, as Bob, Phil and Wally strung together “Let It Grow,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Not Fade Away.” Weir put plenty of emotion into every line of “Let It Grow,” yet it was during the Dylan cover that he held the crowd in the palm of his hand. The audience was pin-drop quiet as Bobby delivered a song that seemed especially fitting for the current times. When he sung, “I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” the power of the moment was overwhelming.
Bob, Phil and Wally ended the second set with “Not Fade Away,” one of the times a lead guitarist would have been most welcome. Weir and Lesh’s voices meshed beautifully on the Buddy Holly cover and the crowd kept the “You know our love will not fade away” refrain going throughout the encore break. Phil Lesh was the first of the musicians to return and gave a speech encouraging audience members to become organ donors. He then talked about “the latest tragedy in Florida” and asked the crowd to vote. Phil said, “Register to vote and vote them mother fuckers out who take the money from the NRA and don’t do anything to keep our children safe.” Bobby and Wally then came out and the threesome lit into a goosebump-inducing “Box Of Rain.” Perhaps more than anything played on Friday, “Box Of Rain” fit the trio format fantastically. Lesh’s signature song was a nice note on which the concert ended.
Lesh is 77 and Weir is 70 and the pair are still finding new ways to interpret the Grateful Dead catalog. Instead of resting on their laurels or retiring, they’re taking chances. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the tour plays out in terms of the stories the pair will tell and whether they’ll be joined by Wally each night and/or other musicians. Most Grateful Dead-related concerts are upbeat, party style affairs and it was nice to attend a more laidback affair, where the stripped-down music was at the forefront. Bobby and Phil continue the tour at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night. A webcast is available via nugs.tv.
Fan-Shot Videos (Captured by Matt Frazier)
Set One: Uncle John’s Band*, Operator, Ramble On Rose, Friend Of The Devil, Bird Song (Beginning) > He’s Gone, Lost Sailor* > Saint Of Circumstance*
Set Two: Loose Lucy*, Peggy-O*, Me & My Uncle*, Mountains Of The Moon* > Bird Song (Ending) *, Let It Grow*, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall*, Not Fade Away*
Encore: Box Of Rain*
* – w/ Wally Ingram