Phil Lesh & Very Special Friends Headline HeadCount Benefit At The Apollo Theater
Phil Lesh has headlined hundreds of venues around the globe throughout his 53-year-plus storied career from Madison Square Garden to the Great Pyramids in Egypt to his home away from home Terrapin Crossroads. Yet on Friday night, the bassist played somewhere that was a first for him as he made his debut at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, marking the first time any member of the Grateful Dead has graced the stage at the iconic venue. The 78-year-old musician was tapped to headline Don’t Tell Me This Country Ain’t Got No Heart: A Benefit For Voter Participation a fundraising concert that was put together by impresario Peter Shaprio for HeadCount, the non-partisan organization which works to promote involvement in democracy.
The evening featured Lesh backed by The Terrapin Family Band, Eric Krasno and Nicki Bluhm throughout the entire show with Robert Randolph, Talib Kweli and the Harlem Gospel Choir joining during the second set. After opening remarks from Shapiro, who talked about the power of music and activism, the night got underway with the “Uncle John Band” as Krasno threw down some stand out guitar work. Ross James stepped up next as he sung lead on “Tangled Up In Blue,” delivering a Jerry Garcia Band-style take on the Bob Dylan tune. The seven-piece act dug in on the Blood On The Tracks song with James delivering a number of fiery solos and multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby adding stellar fiddle work to give it a gospel-folk feel.
Bluhm got a chance to showcase her pipes on Marvin Gaye’s Motown classic “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” The democratic handoff of leading duties rolled on as Lesh took the band through a hit-and-miss take on “Friend Of The Devil.” Drummer Alex Koford had his turn next on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s reactionary anthem “Ohio.” Krasno led the way on a “Ramble On Rose” that saw him put a big emphasis on the song’s “just like New York City” line that got a big roar from the crowd. The first set came to an end as the Leshs took turns with the younger Grahame taking charge on a spirited “Bertha” before the elder delivered his signature song “Box Of Rain.”
HeadCount co-founder Andy Bernstein emerged before the start of the second set to once again hammer home the point and urge people to go out and vote. His statements were followed by Lesh echoing those sentiments and then bringing out the rest of the band to help celebrate Shapiro’s birthday. With his pedal steel guitar sitting vacant throughout the first set, Randolph emerged and would be featured through the final frame. The now eight-piece act got things going with the “Viola Lee Blues” as the prison song served as a launching pad for lengthy jam. “Estimated Prophet” had a classic mid-1970’s Dead vibe with Bluhm and Grahame Lesh locking in harmonies. Bluhm stepped into the spotlight for a straight-ahead take on Stephen Stills’ “Love The One Your With” while James lit into a hard-charging stab at the Grateful Dead socio-political anthem “Throwing Stones.” “Wharf Rat” slowed things down a bit before the energy was brought back up with “Shakedown Street.”
Last night’s take saw Bluhm treat the song more like a soul number than a disco-funk one with her vocals. Towards the end of the tune, Talib Kweli was welcomed to the stage. The MC offered up a freestyle rap as the band continued to vamp on “Shakedown.” Hip-hop met hippie next as Kweli along with help from the Harlem Gospel Choir delivered “Get By.” The title track from his 2003 album came replete with Randolph mimicking the sounds of a DJ scratching. The stage would remain full as the Harlem Gospel Choir provided backing vocals for the remainder of the set.
The ad-hoc ensemble looked to another Dylan song with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” once again turning to the JGB gospel-infused version. Randolph took everyone to church throughout showcasing the sounds of sacred steel while a number of the choir members impressively took solos. A powerhouse “Turn On Your Lovelight” brought the set to a close as Randolph repeatedly expressed his admiration for the choir and dedicated the Bobby “Blue” Bland song to the late Aretha Franklin. Phil Lesh & Co. brought the evening to a close on a hopeful note, looking to “Touch Of Grey” for their encore.
Watch the entire show below which was webcast via Relix:
Set I: Uncle John’s Band, Tangled Up In Blue, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Friend Of The Devil, Ohio, Ramble On Rose, Bertha, Box Of Rain
Set II: Viola Lee Blues, Estimated Prophet, Love The One You’re With, Throwing Stones, Wharf Rat, Shakedown Street*, Get By**, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door***, Turn On Your Lovelight***
Encore: Touch Of Grey***
* w. Talib Kweli, ** Talib Kweli & Harlem Gospel Choir, *** w. Harlem Gospel Choir