Thursday, December 01, 2005

Phil Lesh rounds up a bunch of old pals for his current tour

From Times Union:

Phil Lesh rounds up a bunch of old pals for his current tour

By BOB MARGOLIS, Special to the Times Union

Former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh recently sent an overnight package to jazz guitarist John Scofield.

"I confess: I sent John a set list and a bunch of (Grateful Dead) CDs," Lesh explains over the phone from his rehearsal space in San Francisco. Scofield is set to join Phil Lesh & Friends for a pair of shows -- including Sunday's gig at Albany's Washington Avenue Armory. (Scofield will be replacing multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, who is honoring a prior commitment to Emmylou Harris.)

"It's really going to be an exciting event," says Lesh, who loves to surround himself with like-minded musicians who bring a unique voice to Dead material.

"I'm going back and looking at the stuff that lends itself to extensive exploration, which I think is John's forte. I've been looking to tap into this for a long time, so I would expect the shows with John to include fewer songs and more jamming," he says.

Scofield is a brilliant improviser, and one of the last guitarists to work for Miles Davis. For the past five years or so, he's had one foot in the jam-band world and one in his native jazz realm. In early 2000, when Lesh was first putting together his touring Phil Lesh & Friends bands, he flew Scofield out to California.

"We had this really nice weekend out there and I haven't played with (Lesh) since," Scofield told Pop Matters magazine in 2002. "I guess it was all Dead tunes. It was beautiful. ... I knew about the Dead and heard them some, but I wasn't that familiar with their stuff until lately when me and the whole jam-band scene have kind of inherited that audience. For better or worse, I've found out that in order to get to the creative stuff you have to take chances. Sometimes you have to let it fall apart and then get back together again, and I didn't even realize how the Dead did that. Now I really respect them for that and I really see it as a jazz value. That the audience understands it is so fantastic."

The current version of Lesh and Friends is made up of Black Crowes vocalist Chris Robinson, pedal steel ace Barry Sless, keyboardist Mookie Seigel, drummer John Molo and Campbell, a noted Bob Dylan alum.

"We're really having an awful lot of fun in rehearsals," Lesh says. "Larry will play something that really tickles me, and when I look over he's grinning right back at me. This guy isn't waiting for me to acknowledge that he's playing great (stuff).

"This band is drawing from every Grateful Dead period that we can, and Chris and Larry share a knowledge of obscure roots songs -- old, folky '30s country songs. ... I said to them, 'Hey, in the middle of some jam, pull out one of those tear-jerking tunes.' So effective."

It's a programming strategy straight out of the Dead's playbook. Often, after a hair-raising psychedelic journey such as "Dark Star," the group would re-orbit with a reading of Merle Haggard's "Sing me Back Home."

But while the Dead's set lists remained formulaic in two decades before guitarist Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, Lesh has opened up the process. "Generally, the goal I have in mind when I make a list is to capture a feeling of a certain space and time," he says. A series of shows last December seemed to fall into a three-act structure, "a narrative curve which represented decadence, death and rebirth. But then our next few shows in Vegas, we just wanted to shred. There are only so many plots you can define through the songs."

Lesh allows fan recordings of his shows to be traded and occasionally puts soundboard copies up for free downloading on his Web site,

"As Jerry said, 'When we're done with it, you can have it,' " Lesh says.
But don't expect to see a new studio album anytime soon.

"I think a concept DVD would be very provocative and has the potential to be quite interesting," Lesh says. "I think records are history. Nobody cares about albums anymore. It's about the one song they would rather download for free."

These days, Lesh rarely listens to old Dead tapes, but checks them out when preparing for a Phil & Friends run. "It can be too painful," he says. "I miss Jerry, and it always smacks me in the face -- how unique he was, and how lucky I was to have been able to play with him."


When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Washington Avenue Armory, 195 Washington Ave., Albany

Info: 694-7160

Tickets: $35 in advance, $40 day of show


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