11 April 2007

Photos and Review: Phil Lesh

SOB's, 10 April 2007

Observed as I was leaving the Phil & Friends SOB's show on Tuesday:

  • ticketless Deadheads of the nth degree huddled near the door "gettin' down" to the music (I left during the encore) like they were in the lot at Shoreline... Shakedown St? No -- Varick.
  • wookies huddled in a nearby doorway blowing up balloons of nitrous
  • the strong stench of homeless urine emanating from the subway station... I took a cab.
Observed inside the club earlier in the evening:
  • a dreadlocked woman offering "Tarot readings"
  • a 60ish man tweaked out to the point of being shepherded out by what could very well have been his granddaughter
  • a healthy cloud of smoke hanging in the rafters not seen in these parts since the Wetlands closed its doors.
  • the ghost of Jerry Garcia ripping a hole in the ceiling, reaching in and personally filing a cease-and-desist order on the butchering of the Lady with a Fan section of Terrapin Station
  • One helluva live music show....
I'll keep it short(ish), but the Grateful Dead experience is alive and well once again, its demise exaggerated for the zillionth time. After reports of extreme mediocrity permeated the interweb after Monday's rehearsal dinner, the new band -- featuring Larrys Campbell and McCray on Garcia/Weir|Herring/Haynes duty as well as John Molo (back from the death... or food poisoning, depending on your preferred level of melodrama) on drums, Steve Molitz (of Particle non-fame) on keys and youthful exuberance and some woman on estrogenic presence and occasional backup vocals -- was wedded, consummated and sent way on their honeymoon.

The setlist read thusly:

Set I: Franklins Tower > Friend of the Devil > The Weight, Ship Of Fools* > Blow Away*, Cold Rain and Snow*

Set II: Viola Lee Blues* > Candyman, All Along the Watchtower > Cryptical Envelopment > Other One > something Particulate, Terrapin Station [mercifully aborted], Terrapin Station > I Know You Rider

E: Next Time You See Me

*w/ Warren Haynes

Having not been there on Monday, I can only assume the difference between the reports of "blech" on Tuesday morning and the twittering glee in the eyes of everyone from the get-go through the end on Tuesday night was John Molo. The guy received a standing O outside the venue as he walked past the ticketless and ticketed alike to make his way inside. That was quite possibly the worst case of diarrhea in Deadhead history.

Make no doubt about it, this was a special show. As close as you're getting to the Grateful Dead these days in a club that had the size and vibe of the old Wetlands Preserve. The incomparable Chris Kuroda on lights and a sound so clicking, Phil's overheard manic stage directions sounded like music. That music was about as ranging as the members of a band. It is an ensemble where you've got a Dylan/country-rock twangster, an honest-to-goodness bluesman, a guy who's so electronica he seems to perpetually exists under strobe lights, not to mention the living embodiment of the great grandfathers of jam music. The quality of play was just as dispersed as was the resulting music we've got.

They were pretty slamming out of the gate. I've sometimes found Molo's drumming to be a little too unhinged from the otherwise tight Phil Lesh melange (including multiple occasions Tuesday night) but during Franklin's he was as otherworldly as I would have wanted. The Lesh/Molo combo was too much for any mediocrity to overcome from the get-go, they simply wouldn't let the shit fail. The good thing is, the rest of the band seemed, if not a polished per se, certainly up to the task. The Franklin's>FOTD>The Weight wasn't perfect, mind you, but certainly rocked the roof off. SOB's was hopping! The entire time it felt they could have dropped into a Know You Rider with that pinpoint '73 China/Rider accuracy but they never quite did.

A guitarist in the Phil Lesh circle doesn't necessarily need to know the Grateful Dead to succeed, but they certainly need to know Jerry at some level. They may not even be aware that they are aware, but they have to appreciate the Garcia aesthetic to carry the music the way Phil wants it to be played. Tuesday night we got to see Larry McCray make his first steps toward that knowledge. He is a far cry from Jimmy Herring, but his chops were on display and he certainly has something to them.

Warren Haynes (yes that Warren Haynes, can you believe it??) came out toward th e end of the first set and did the things that Warren does. I wouldn't say the show was great because of Haynes. He brought an air of legitimacy to the tunes he played on and seemed to up the level of intensity from the rest of the band. Ship of Fools was nice from an observational standpoint, but Blow Away was actually dead on. They played both of those tunes at my first Dead show many years ago and so the pairing was particularly sweet. McCray sang the latter and M olitz was channeling his inner-Mydland (who knew he had it?).

When they turned to a jam midway, Phil seemed agitated in his urging: his eyes said "JAM" and only after multiple gesticulations did he get everything to sink in properly, but it paid off. That was the other angle to the show that was kinda neat. It was a glorified, $50-a-pop rehearsal, no doubt about it. Thankfully it was a mostly enjoyable one, but you got to see a band taking shape, a group that is probably only at 33 and a third at this point, but certainly on their way. Throughout the night Lesh coaxed and brooded and gritted his teeth and eventually smiled and bobbed and whispered and shouted and looked old and looked young. Phil Lesh is the Cesar Millan of the jamiverse -- he is the Jam Whisperer. I am convinced that given enough time he can turn any 5 musicians into a decent, if not transcendent band.

The first set had its ups and downs but was enough to console my decision to actually step inside the venue and not make off with a bounty of scalped lucre. The second set, we all know, though, is where a show is made and on that front, the show was made with an intergalactic Viola Lee Blues. If my musical life was chopped up into 30 minute moments, the ticks made up this jam have to be rated. This one started with a little TNT: just an explosion of sound and more importantly volume. It inspired an audibilized "whoa!" out of me. The lion was awake and it wanted us to know it! With Haynes still kicking around on a crowded stage, the band coalesced around the Lesh-Molo engine. It was either a peak or a foreshadowing of potential, but it was in the "as good as it gets" category. Each verse of this monster flipped into something different, the band becoming a chameleon with wide ranging jams that were loose and tight and spot on all over. During one stretch Warren and Phil and Molo locked in on a target -- Low Spark -- and seemed destined to make the segue. It was more of a tease... let's call it a vamp, and it got me in a sweat. Eventually Phil guided them out of it -- WHAM! back into Viola Lee. This was the floor exercises of their routine: filled with cartwheels, back flips and pure synchronicity. What I'm trying to say here is that the Viola Lee Blues kicked ass.

McCray shined again on Candyman, not quite nailing it as owning it. He's got the best voice on the stage as well as the best axeman chops and when he truly learns how to direct those talents towards Phil's goals, when he truly absorbs the spirit of Jerry as Lesh understands it, he'll have that "I once was blind and now I see" moment and anyone there in the audience to witness it will go home a happy man. But cover songs are easier and Watchtower was pumping with Phil playing impossibly low on the low end. Is there a sweeter sound coming from below than Phil Lesh's 10 fingers on a 6-string Modulus? There is something purely good about that tone and those runs of notes -- Mozart, Picasso, Lesh.

At this point the hour-mark for the set had been reached and an LIRR window was opening for me [ed. note fulfills OTW review quote of one mention of train ride in or out of city]. The band circled the wagons and lay down camp in a Cryptical that I could not escape. Phil strained on the vocals but the ensuing jam was of the sugary sweet variety and I had to forgo an hour of sleep. Lucky for me as there was a full hour of music left in the quiver. The jam between Cryptical and the Other One here was atypical. It wasn't that fiery pulsating stun gun of a jam, but more of an eased-in melodic pirouette. The guys were really dialed in at this point and they took on that quintessential Phil Lesh and Friends vibe of "you don't know where we're going and frankly neither do we!" The jam was prolonged and sweet but eventually it did make it there with that gooey goodness coming from Phil as they dropped the bomb on the Other One.

That ripped and dropped into some Particle tune that was a complete 180 on the band and the crowd. The late hour on a weeknight started stripping away some of that enthusiastic 400 or so that had been shoehorned in. All of the sudden, the small club became a little late night tripster den. Kuroda was masterful all night, but maybe he didn't quite nail the vibe coming from the stage at this moment, but the band sure did. Molo and Lesh played the part of jammers half their age, embracing the techno like you never knew they could. Molitz was in the zone and the bobs between notes doubled in amplitude and the smile was just as wide. He literally took over the band, directing them and guiding them through a jam that was so up-tempo it practically gave McCray a heart attack keeping up. The man is large and this thing had him sweating and shooting looks of both fear and admiration at Molitz. It was much fun and it brought the Particle People out of the woodwork, which was neat.

At this point I couldn't believe they were still going strong. I was in danger of missing the next train as we stood around mulling what they might finish up with. When they started up the Terrapin Station I had but one thought: this is going to be a disaster. I actually said it out loud, so sure was my fear. Hey, I've been singing these guys' praises in paragraph form here, but let's not kid ourselves, they were rough around the edges and they were sticking to the B-Grade material. The guys were jamming at a yummy level, but I hadn't seen anything that lead me to believe they could handle the intricate composed sections of a true Dead masterpiece. Of course, I was right. McCray looked about as confused as a new puppy being left alone for the first time not to mention completely spent. The question wasn't quite who was out of tune but who wasn't. Man, they were one George McConnell short of absolute, quintessential trainwreck and after a few verses of shit sandwich and some "Jerry's turning in his grave" attempts at a solo in the midsection, Phil cut his losses and aborted the attempt. The crowd cheered. Yes, they cheered when it was over. I cheered. What were we cheering? "A+ for effort" or "thanks for ending my misery. " Ouch.

So, after some minutes discussion of the assumed "what can we do to salvage this set?" variety they started up again. What song, pray tell, do you think they decided to substitute? That's right, another version of Terrapin. This one wasn't A+, but it was certainly a passing mark. What did Phil say? What magical tuning machine did they employ? It had to be magic, this shit was actually quite, quite good. Campbell nailed the solo as well as you'd expect him to, McCray had caught his breath and Phil reached deep down into the liver for some blast of jams past. There ain't nothing in the Dead repertoire that skins my rabbit quite like a well-played Terrapin and this one passed the sniff test. Something you could really sink your teeth into, not to mention mix metaphors about.

And yet, still, STILL, they were not done. The end jam peaked and peaked the way a good end-to-Terrapin jam should. Sweet powerful sounds... finally gathering into that long-awaited Know You Rider. Set time was approaching 2 hours, how these old men weren't tired I'll never know, juicing the Ensure for all I care, but damn, they found it deep inside and brought it one more time. We danced one last dance finding our own reserves -- everyone happy they had been there inside. It's not every day you get the private party with someone like Phil Lesh. Someone who's delivered for so many years and somehow, in some way, still delivers like few can. He's a national treasure. Lucky us.


Anonymous said...

Oh to be a fly on the wall for the phone conversation between Phil and Warren on Tuesday morning. "Warren, PLEASE come down tonight and help me and Molo whip these guys into shape. After last night I'll never plan New York again unless I can redeem myself."

-Bob Frapples

neddy said...

Seriously... I wonder what Warren gets in return. Expect a Lesh sit-in at a Mule show near you!

WeightStaff said...

Great review -- "Dead" on...

Despite the obvious shortcomings, I thought overall, it was one of the better Phil shows i've seen in a long time. Curious to see how the lineup pans out for future dates...One thing is for sure, McCray has serious potential!

For a slightly different and shorter review, check out:


Anonymous said...

"Phil Lesh is the Cesar Millan of the jamiverse -- he is the Jam Whisperer."