Phil & Friends/RatDog | 12.31.08 | S.F.

By: Garrin Benfield | Images by: Susan J. Weiand

Phil Lesh & Friends/RatDog/Jackie Greene :: 12.31.08 :: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA

Editor’s Note: We thought it would be fun to have a local San Francisco musician with deep roots in the Grateful Dead world review Phil and Bobby’s NYE celebration. Through the eyes of singer-guitarist Garrin Benfield, we give you an artist’s perspective on The Dead circa 2009.

Lesh, Molo, Weir :: 12.31.08 :: San Francisco
I’m proud of the Grateful Dead. I’m proud of all they were for 30 years, and I’m proud of the various incarnations that they benevolently splintered off into when Jerry Garcia died in 1995. I’m proud of our city of San Francisco for being the kind of town that fostered the birth and growth of this musical organization that might very well be credited with creating a musical genre all its own. I’m thankful that my life path turned towards this band of brothers, and grateful for the ways their music has influenced its direction. My mind was flooded with thoughts like these about midway through the nearly eight-hour Phil Lesh & Friends and RatDog New Year’s Eve show at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. While increasingly subject to public criticism that they have become something akin to a “dinosaur nostalgia act,” there were a lot of promising signs on this one night that everyone currently involved with the interpretation of the Dead catalog remains committed to these songs as vehicles for daring, exploratory new music. The living legacy of The Dead is a double whammy: perhaps one of the most important catalogs of American music combined with an unprecedented willingness to deconstruct and recontextualize that very catalog. Of course, this venture is subject to inspiration and energy, and for the most part, on this high holiday of the jam band universe, the boys succeeded quite well.

The evening got off to an unassuming, laid back start with Jackie Greene‘s ten song opening set. Starting with “Farewell, So Long, Goodbye,” the four-piece band at first sounded like a more reigned-in version of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder-era revue, but went on to demonstrate a range that included everything from jump blues to concise, noir-ish minor-mode jamming. “Closer to You,” a mid-tempo slow burner, sounded radio-ready to me, and also gave Jackie a chance to jump on B-3 organ and piano, on which he seemed at ease. The whole band was analog to the core, using what looked like vintage gear to produce gritty, rootsy tones. Barry Sless guested on pedal steel for a good portion of the set, but was undermixed, at least where I was sitting. Greene possesses a gratifying voice that is not that unlike Chris Robinson when he really digs in to deliver a blues line or extrapolate a melody. He projects a “good guy” vibe and seems genuinely appreciative of all the new ears that have found their way to his music. “I feel very blessed to be playing with Phil,” he said prior to leaving the stage, “and to have met all you wonderful people. It’s a long night, pace yourselves!” Good advice.

Lesh & Greene – Phil & Friends :: 12.31.08 :: San Francisco
People seemed to do just that in the break before Phil was set to take the stage. It’s always a blast observing the chillest, most familial audience in rock ‘n’ roll get to know itself during set break; chatting, smoking, exchanging greetings and New Year’s wishes. As the lights went down and the huge curtain went up, Phil and the guys eased into the Dead’s 40-year-old psychedelic party anthem, “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion),” which really felt like an invitation all over again. There was no hesitation in the energy and focus the band put forth out of the gate, and the song was bookended nicely with a repeat of the opening figure. I was mildly concerned when what followed at first appeared to be a dissolve of sorts, as Phil does have a tendency to veer towards modal improv early in the night, especially on New Year’s Eve. So, I was relieved when he eased the band into “The Wheel” and the room found its footing again. “Wheel” was aided significantly by Sless’ pedal steel. What followed was a fairly classic, if somewhat condensed PLF set. A jam with a few key modulations and some well explored regions dropped gracefully into “Eyes of the World,” which reached the first big peak of the night. The crowd roared it’s approval of the evident onstage camaraderie, with Sless, now on lead guitar, trading breaks with Steve Molitz, and Phil and John Molo cooperating on a an intricately syncopated groove. “Don’t Let Me Down” seemed like the perfect landing after that first explosion of psychedelic energy, but it wasn’t long before we were off again into what initially sounded like a “Whipping Post” jam. But no, it was “The Eleven”! In the outro of “The Eleven” there seemed to be a minute or two of confusion about where the downbeat was (or maybe, as the Dead used to say, where you thought it was) but we found our way into “Slipknot!” without too much damage. Personally, I love hearing this piece on its own, disconnected from its suite-mate “Help on the Way.” It was a nice surprise that basically functioned as a springboard to the end of the set with Molitz’s “Elevator” and a buoyant “Franklin’s Tower” closer. “Elevator,” with its sinister Middle Eastern mode and circular King Crimson-esque figures, was a brilliantly placed change of pace that re-energized the room.

Bob Weir – RatDog :: 12.31.08 :: San Francisco
After a short break, a few amps and a drum kit were set up in front of the curtain, and Bobby emerged for the first time, with Phil and Molo, essentially reprising the trio that had gotten its sea legs at The Warfield shows earlier this year. (The previous night’s trio set had featured Jay Lane on drums.) I think these sets will be the story of this New Year’s run. It really felt like a gift from the band, the chance to witness Phil and Bobby develop a new way of communicating with each other in front of us. Though the material may seem familiar, maybe even predictable on paper, the setlist only tells half the story. The conspicuous and deliberate lack of a traditional lead guitar voice allowed these two idiosyncratic players room to wander, and opened a window into their wholly unique styles that simply is not as easy to reach in the context of their two sometimes unruly bands. No rush, no fuss and super stoney, the trio was vaguely reminiscent of Hot Tuna, but really its own beast. The highlight for me was the inspired choice of an acoustic “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Didn’t see that coming! Here’s hoping they build this concept into the upcoming Dead tour somehow – The anti-power trio.

After the density (and intensity) of Phil’s set and the hushed delivery of the trio, it was a bit of a relief to settle into RatDog, the band that probably most closely references the Grateful Dead sound most of us got to experience: that late 70’s/80’s amalgam of blues, country, progressive rock and harmony vocals. The first notes of “Mississippi Half Step” announced that the second half of the night was under way, in a big way. Though, like Phil, Bobby allows for multiple lead voices to co-exist in jams, in RatDog there is generally more room for a single soloist to develop an idea somewhat independently before everyone else jumps on board. Mark Karan had this chance, and jumped on it early in the outro of “Half Step.” An abrupt but well executed transition led us into “Just Like Mama Said.” This was my first time hearing this tune, and though I’m a huge fan of new material, this one needs some development. It mostly seemed out of Bobby’s vocal range, and the verses didn’t have much melodic content. Typically cool, quirky chord changes kept me interested, though. The jam out of “Playing in the Band” lay dormant for a while then caught fire right as it transitioned into “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.” Bobby delivered this one with dynamic expertise, starting the first verse almost at a whisper, knowing there were five more long verses to come. A crashing conclusion led to a brief silence, and “The Other One” emerged. This song still seems to inspire the most angular, modern playing from everyone who approaches it. If there’s an evergreen of psychedelia, this is it. I did wonder what it feels like for Robyn Sylvester to play that thunderous Phil Lesh bass intro with the guy in the room. After a very brief but funky “Stuff” (that stopped on a dime, by the way), the most notable moment in the set was “At A Siding,” the rarely played section of Terrapin Station (“while you were gone…”). Though I know this has been in RatDog sets for a little while now, this was my first encounter with this piece and I was overjoyed with how triumphantly performed it was. At this point there were a lot of folks on stage, behind the band, and the anticipatory vibe was growing. A relaxed “I Know you Rider” closed the set, and we were off to who knows where.

New Year’s Band :: 12.31.08 :: San Francisco
A few minutes before midnight, a sound collage began playing from the PA – a mash-up of classical pieces, snippets of opera and synth drones. From somewhere behind the light rigging, a giant terrapin began lowering over the front of the stage, gradually turning so that its underside was facing the crowd. As soon as it reached that position, the midnight countdown began, with the remaining seconds of 2008 projected on the turtle itself. As the balloons dropped, the New Year’s band revealed itself, including Bobby and Phil on stage together. “Sugar Magnolia” kicked into gear, but it was soon evident that with almost every member of PLF and RatDog onstage, certain cues and musical turns were going to be harder to navigate. Nonetheless, this long set included some very cooperative full ensemble playing. During “Wharf Rat,” the band got completely confused right before the big bridge (“…but I’ll get back on my feet someday”), and made it halfway through the section before Bob said, “Let’s go back to that last verse and try this again.” It was a nice moment of levity late in the night when everyone was starting to fray just a bit, most notably Bobby, who began exiting and entering the stage at various moments, or sitting on the drum riser and just listening; probably not a bad idea with so many people playing. After another serious stab at “Dark Star,” everyone pulled it together for “Not Fade Away,” and with “US Blues” and a reverent reading of “Ripple,” the night came to its natural conclusion. Like so many times before, we slowly shuffled out into the cool San Francisco early morning onto other adventures.

Jackie Greene setlist
Farewell So Long Goodbye, Love Me Just A Little Baby I’m Down Here On My Knees, Don’t Let The Devil Take Your Mind, Closer To You^, Shaken^, Tell Me Mama, Animal > Parchman Farm, Another Love Gone Bad, Like A Ball And Chain
^with Barry Sless (pedal Steel)

Phil Lesh & Friends (Jackie Greene, John Molo, Steve Molitz & Barry Sless) setlist:
The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion > The Wheel > Eyes Of The World > Don’t Let Me Down > The Eleven > Slipknot! > Elevator > Franklin’s Tower

Bob Weir, Phil Lesh & John Molo setlist:
Me And My Uncle@, El Paso@, Tomorrow Never Knows@, Maggie’s Farm > Dark Star > Cassidy
@ Weir acoustic

Bob Weir & RatDog (Jay Lane, Mark Karan, Jeff Chimenti, Kenny Brooks Robin Sylvester) setlist:
Mississippi Half-Step > Jus’ Like Mama Said > Playing In The Band > A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall@, The Other One > Stuff > Standing On The Moon > At A Siding > Terrapin Flyer > Terrapin (refrain) > I Know You Rider
@ Weir acoustic

New Year Eve’s Band (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Jeff Chimenti, Steve Molitz, Kenny Brooks, John Molo, Jay Lane, Mark Karan, Jackie Greene, Barry Sless) setlist:
Sugar Magnolia > Uncle John’s Band > Wharf Rat (without Jeff, Kenny & Jay) > Good Lovin’ (without Jay) > Sugaree (without Bob & John), Scarlet Begonias (without Jeff & John; Jackie on drums) > Space (without Jay; Jackie on drums) > Come Together (without Jay & Steve; Jackie on drums) > Dark Star > Not Fade Away
Encore: Donor Rap / Intros, US Blues, Ripple

The Dead recently announced tour dates for 2009. You can see them here. Our author, Garrin Benfield also has a bunch of tour dates, you can see him here.

Continue reading for more pics of Phil, Bobby and Jackie on NYE in San Francisco…

Bob Weir & Phil Lesh
Jackie Greene
Jackie Greene
Jackie Greene
Jackie Greene
Barry Sless with Jackie Greene Band
Jackie Greene
Phil Lesh & Friends
Lesh & Greene – Phil Lesh & Friends
Phil Lesh & Friends
Barry Sless – Phil Lesh & Friends
Steve Molitz – Phil Lesh & Friends
John Molo – Phil Lesh & Friends
John Molo – Phil Lesh & Friends
Jackie Greene – Phil Lesh & Friends
Lesh, Molo, Weir – Acoustic Trio
Phil Lesh – Acoustic Trio
Bob Weir – Acoustic Trio
Phil Lesh & John Molo – Acoustic Trio
Lesh & Weir – Acoustic Trio
Bob Weir – RatDog
Mark Karan – RatDog
The Weirs – RatDog
Jay Lane – RatDog
Jeff Chimenti – RatDog
Kenny Brooks – RatDog
Robin Sylvester – RatDog
New Year’s Eve Band
New Year’s Eve Band
New Year’s Eve Band

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