Happy Birthday Phil Lesh: Phil Lesh & Friends Perform At Slow Food Rocks Festival In 2008

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Phil Lesh celebrates his birthday today. The legendary Grateful Dead bassist and Phil Lesh & Friends bandleader was born on March 15, 1940 in Berkeley, California. At 81, music has been a constant in Phil’s long and storied career but he wasn’t always the bass player extraordinaire the world knows today.

Lesh began his musical journey on violin and went on to play trumpet in the band at Berkeley High School where he excelled and also began tuteledge under Golden Gate Park symphony conductor Bob Hansen. Along with classical music, Lesh also became interested in jazz. Phil would go on to study in a number of collegiate music programs around the Bay Area and became heavily influenced by both genres, but especially jazz.

In the mid-20th century, San Francisco was the West Coast mecca for jazz and Phil became an avid attendee of shows from legendary jazz bandleaders like Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Lesh has famously categorized seeing Coltrane with legendary jazz guitarist Wes Mongomery in 1962 as “the most transcendental, highest music experience I’ve ever had in my life.” A few years later Phil would sit in with a band called The Warlocks who later became the Grateful Dead.

Part of the Dead’s genius was their ability to combine musical genres with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir coming from more folk/bluegrass backgrounds, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan bringing the blues and drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Phil adding jazz flavors. This set up the diversity and versatility the Grateful Dead are now famous for. But as horns weren’t really the rage in rock bands at the time, Phil picked up the bass out of necessity and would go on to innovate the way it was used in rock music along with contemporaries like Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce and Jack Casady.

Phil’s jazz influences would also come in handy as the Grateful Dead began to become more of a psychedelic band. Jazz’s improvisational nature translated well to the Dead’s exploratory style with Lesh’s sometimes bounding, sometimes bubbly, sometimes charging bass often leading the band both on stage and in the studio. Phil’s academic musical prowess — especially in the realm of composition, which he studied — would also come in handy in the latter and Phil had a hand in arranging the Grateful Dead’s second album, Anthem Of The Sun, the first side of which reads like symphonic movement. Lesh largely composed the post “That’s It For The Other One” song “New Potato Caboose” and his trumpet playing can be heard on Weir’s “Born Cross-Eyed” to close out the first side. Additionally, Phil worked with Pigpen on “Alligator” from the second side. Lesh also put his mark on other early Dead classics like “St. Stephen,” his signature song “Box Of Rain” and later composed stellar tunes “Unbroken Chain” and “Pride of Cucamonga.”

As noted above, the Grateful Dead became the powerhouse they were because of the diverse musical tastes of its members and while Jerry Garcia is often seen as the de-facto leader of the band, Lesh and Weir also gained valuable experience as leaders in different forms throughout the Dead’s 30-year tenure which they would utilize in their post GD careers. Lesh’s experience in composition and arrangement would serve him well as he stepped into the role of true bandleader with his long-running project Phil Lesh & Friends.

Not only did Phil put together some great bands from a purely musical standpoint but he also exhibited great mentor and leadership qualities in that oftentimes those lineups featured up-and-coming artists in the genre Phil helped to create, jam. Such is the case with Phil Lesh & Friends’ August 31, 2008 slot at Slow Food Rocks Festival at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The lineup included guitarists Mark Karan and Jackie Greene, keyboardist Steve Molitz of Particle and longtime Phil & Friends drummer John Molo.

The band delivered one set that kicked off with Greene leading the way on “Playing In The Band” and “Bertha.” After “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” Karan would sing “Deal” before the quintet got into the classic pairing of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.” Greene and Karan would trade vocal duties on “Sugaree” ahead of a massive set-closing section of “Uncle John’s Band” > “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower” > “Sugar Magnolia.” After Phil’s donor rap, the band would encore with his aforementioned signature song, “Box Of Rain.”

To celebrate Phil’s birthday, watch Phil Lesh & Friends perform from San Francisco in 2008 below via the JamBase Live Video Archive:


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Grateful Dead on MV (See 43 videos)
Phil Lesh & Friends (See 183 videos) , John Molo (See 109 videos) , Mark Karan (See 10 videos) , Jackie Greene (See 91 videos) and Steve Molitz (See 11 videos)

Setlist (via Philzone.com)

Set: Playing In The Band > *Bertha, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, #Deal, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, ^Sugaree, Uncle John’s Band > Jam > Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower > Sugar Magnolia

Encore: Donor Rap, Box Of Rain

Notes:

*w/ Parade from Soundboard area to stage

#Mark Karan on vocals

^Mark Karan verse 1+2, Jackie verse 3 vocals

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