JamBase List | Aaron Redner – 10 Reasons Why Phil Lesh Matters

A recent participant in Songs Of Their Own, our video series celebrating the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary, Hot Buttered Rum fiddler/mandolinist Aaron Redner is not shy about his affection for the band and its members. The San Francisco local saw many Grateful Dead concerts prior to their calling quits after the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. As Redner showcases in the JamBase list below, the influence of The Dead continues to be a strong force in music two decades beyond their last show. 

[Photo by Jay Blakesberg]

Redner penned the JamBase List –10 Reasons Why Phil Lesh Matters – detailing some of the many reasons the Grateful Dead’s bassist is helping to carry on the legacy of The Dead. Read on to see why Redner holds Phil in such high esteem.

10 Reasons Why Phil Lesh Matters

1. Phil’s sons

It is a wonderful thing to see Phil perform with his boys [Grahame and Brian]. I have seen Phil play with his son Grahame on numerous occasions. There is a feeling of joy and camaraderie in the air when their performance begins. Backstage, it is special to see them in the rehearsal space. If you did not know they were related they come across as two passionate colleagues, both with a fertile imagination, and they share a deep desire to connect with the audience in a soulful and authentic manner. Another trait they share is being musically organized and prepared. They are diligent about having lyrics and chord charts ready for the downbeat. A solid lesson for a young musician looking to improve their work ethic.

His son Brian is also an accomplished musician in his own right and has jammed with many of music’s finest. As a recent father myself, I can only imagine how incredible it would be to not only play music with my son, but to have him be completely familiar with my personal musical canon from over the years. Combine that with many years of performing with a diverse array of musicians and exploring songs from the American songbook and you have an explanation why they now share stages both big and small together with a simple sense of gratitude for having each other in their lives.

A greater success than that you’ll never find.

2. Phil’s grandson

Levon. Levon Lesh. Wow! Now there’s a name drenched in Americana history and a fascinating journey yet to be told.

3. Terrapin Crossroads

Much like his grandson’s name sake, Levon Helm, who maintained a venue known as The Barn in upstate New York, Terrapin Crossroads is morphing into a center of musical exploration and opportunity for many of the bay area’s’ top musicians to combine forces both with Phil and without him, but always in his shadow because almost every night a Grateful Dead song will be played by somebody in one form or another. These “rambles” have created legendary stories and one never knows who may show up on any given evening. Gregg Allman and Trey Anastasio are recent visitors. They often pair virtuosos together who may not ever meet elsewhere and play music that is in the spirit of Phil and beyond. Both the Grate Room and the bar stage have seen more rock stars in the past few years than many venues could ever dream of hosting and it’s largely because of the gravity of planet Phil. Along with Jill Lesh, Phil and his team have created a venue that seems expertly run and destined for years of epic musical adventure.

4. Phamily

Phil provides us with a vibrant and mighty example of a huge branch from the great musical phamily tree. Sooooo much music has been influenced by Phil and his Haight Street buddies that you trip over the spools of names of bands who for them, Grateful Dead is the source.
Phil stands now as a great uncle to all the younger bands who gain such pleasure from playing his music. There is a constant flow of bands coming through Terrapin Crossroads and the shows that feature Phil immediately sell out. One really cool thing is that Phil will learn the original music of a group and sit in on those tunes as well as Grateful Dead tunes. One can see a sparkle of excitement in the singers’ eyes when they become aware of Mr. Lesh’s bass coming through the mix.

5. Bass Bombs

“Let it Grow” from October 11, 1977 at the 7:41 mark.

“Jack Straw” from July 2, 1988 at the 4:30 -4:40 mark.

6. Mike Gordon

After the Dead stopped touring I would get antsy every once in a while for the live show experience I was sorely missing.

Phish proved to be my itch cream on many memorable occasions in places like the Gorge in Washington, Shoreline Amphitheatre, the old Boston Garden, and more. I remember one time sitting at my campsite at the Gorge and seeing Mike Gordon walk by. He was with one other guy and, of course, they drew attention. You could see that Mike was just out to experience the day to channel it for his performance that evening. It was cool to see a bass player be a rockstar as much as anybody else in the band and for me that started with Phil Lesh. I was known to contribute to the, “Let Phil sing!” chant and loved seeing him have a blast leading the charge from the microphone. Mike seems to have taken a similar path and while he does not sing as much as Trey Anastasio, he contributes mightily with solid backup singing, a great ear, and a calm presence that seems capable of taking things to another gear when needed. He is also an excellent composer and while I am unfamiliar with the rehearsal techniques of his band I am sure he contributes often to harmonic and rhythmic choices that eventually morph into the finished song.
One might use the same description for Phil Lesh.

7. “Box of Rain”

“Look out of any window, any morning, any evening, any dayeeeeyay…”

That song really opened my crown chakra. When I listen to that song and others that surrounded it from that time it puts me in touch with an innocent nomadic spirit that perhaps was more powerful in its naïveté then it could ever hope to be again. The music came across as visionary and avuncular. It provided safe passage through many turbulent times and kept my head above water because of the curiosity it stoked in my mind. I think it’s my favorite vocal performance by Phil and is right in his strongest range.

It is also a song that is quite difficult to learn to play for a beginning guitar player. There are some unusual chord changes and time shifts that require an experienced musical mind to process and execute. It’s a real jam-buster if somebody doesn’t really know it. In that way it stands apart from songs like “Friend Of The Devil” or “I Know You Rider” that have more consistent chord changes. It embodies Grateful Dead’s music. A complex and deeply rooted system that creates a sense of simplicity, natural groove, and community.

8. Organ donation

It is common knowledge that Phil received a liver transplant which saved his life. Every show he performs he makes a point of bringing up organ donation. It is touching to hear him give his “donor rap” and you can feel the presence of the person who gave Phil his ticket to another chapter, in the room. I myself am a proud organ donor and encourage everyone else to do the same. What a gift we can provide!

9. Jerry Garcia


My head still turns every time I hear that name. The more I listen to Grateful Dead music now that he’s gone, the more I hear how influenced he was by the musical interplay he shared with Phil every night. I went to many shows when Jerry was dragging and you could feel Phil take responsibility for the energy in the room by rocking out hard and with a smile. That is a great lesson for a young band. On their best nights the two men were like psychedelic warrior-poets who made you forget about the price of admission and returned you to shore at the end each show a transformed being. I am grateful to Phil for helping carve out such a great artist like Mr. Garcia.

10. “Unbroken Chain.”

There has always been a mystique about this opus and few moments in “live Dead” history rival the late bust-outs of the tune. This song has many twists and turns and crazy math and that description seems apt for the man at the helm of this particular ship. Unpredictable and complex with a cinnamon, caramel core the ear loves to ingest, I hope more people decide to take this song on and make it their own. It seems ready for that.

Watch Redner and Hot Buttered Rum in our Songs Of Their Own video series covering the Grateful Dead’s “The Music Never Stopped.”