Monday, December 05, 2005

Lesh steps to the forefront of the ex-Dead


From Buffalo News:

Lesh steps to the forefront of the ex-Dead
By JEFF MIERS
NEWS POP MUSIC CRITIC

Grateful Dead fans have had to split their loyalty between various offshoots of that band, following the death of Zen-master guitarist Jerry Garcia a decade back.

Though the surviving members have toured and recorded together as the Other Ones and, later, the Dead, that seems to be a thing of the past, now. Bob Weir has settled in with a wonderful version of his Ratdog band. Drummer Mickey Hart is involved in various projects. And bassist Phil Lesh has been leading his own Phil & Friends, a rotating cast of musical characters, for the past several years.

Dead fans have plenty to be grateful about. But after Saturday night's filled-to-capacity gig inside Shea's Performing Arts Center, Lesh has taken the lead in the ever-widening circle of Dead-related musical expeditions.

Fans came to Shea's expecting a strong show, based on their previous experiences with Lesh's "Friends" bands. What they got was much, much more. In fact, during certain sections of Saturday's twin-set, 31/2-hour performance, Shea's felt like a spaceship that had lifted off from downtown Buffalo and was hurtling through the cosmos, as weightless as a child. Yeah, it was that good.

Lesh has assembled a killer band of like-minded musical visionaries, easily the strongest unit he's commandeered to date. Black Crowes/New Earth Mud vocalist Chris Robinson has adopted the role of frontman. Mookie Siegel mans the keyboards, stage right. Guitarist and pedal steel player Barry Sless flanks Siegel. John Molo, veteran of Bruce Hornsby's bands and the post-Garcia Dead, occupies the drummer's throne. And making his debut with the band during the Shea's show, filling in for the otherwise occupied Larry Campbell, late of Bob Dylan's band, was John Scofield, one of the greatest living jazz guitarists and - based on Saturday's show - an artist up for new and creative challenges.

Lesh leads the band with his mighty six-string bass, his wholly unique, lyrical and supremely funky lines acting as the core of the dense but spacious sound. The set list was astoundingly good. Scofield strode onto the stage with a big book of chord changes, plopped it down on a music stand, and they were off, straight into "Dire Wolf." A tiny bit tentative at first, but as Robinson's soulful vocals caressed the tune's folksy charm, and the crowd came alive, we had achieved liftoff; Scofield's first solo as part of the band was transcendent, a mix of jazz phrasing and harmonic intelligence, with a down and dirty blues feel. The crowd went nuts, the musicians exchanged smiles, and we knew we were in for a treat.

"Big Railroad Blues" followed, and the rapport between Scofield's jazz-blues approach and Sless' country-tinged pedal steel work was immediately apparent, as if the two had formed a deep and lasting friendship right before our eyes. From here on out, it was all gravy, as "Mr. Charlie" brought serious funk, Robinson's southern soul floating atop Molo's locomotive-groove drumming. Set two began with a "Shakedown Street" of epic proportions, as Lesh led the group through endlessly inventive variations on a theme, and Sless and Scofield continued their gloriously telepathic interplay. This was gooseflesh-inspiring stuff, but the vibe got even heavier when the group launched into the finest, most swanky and saucy "Althea" it's ever been my pleasure to hear. Scofield's solo on this tune should be preserved in history.

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