Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Phil Zone




From the New York Post:

IN THE LESH
By MICHAEL KANE

Grateful Dead bassist is backIn THE amorphous minds of Deadheads, there's a mythical musical destination known commonly as "The Phil Zone." You won't find it on any map - it's all over the map. The Phil Zone is anywhere in the immediate rhythmic vicinity of former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.

And if you still need directions, try looking at the intersection of "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain."

I first wandered into the Phil Zone in July 1990 at a show in Rich Stadium near Buffalo.

Somewhere in the middle of a "Sunshine Daydream," I realized I was standing 10 rows from the stage. I looked up and thought, "Hey, man, that's Phil Lesh."

Last week, my phone rang at work. When I picked it up, a voice said, "Hey, man, this is Phil Lesh."

Talk about trippy.

Phil spoke of the eight-gig New York City run of his post-Dead ensemble, Phil Lesh & Friends, which continues at the Beacon Theater (tonight, Tuesday, Wednesday) before shifting to the Hammerstein Ballroom (Friday, Saturday and Feb. 19).

"I want to bring in musicians from outside the tradition, from outside the Grateful Dead family," says Lesh, 65. "That way the approaches to the songs can be even more oblique, even fresher."
Along with regular Jerry Garcia stand-ins Larry Campbell and Barry Sless on guitar, guest Joan Osborne will lend vocals to Phil's ever-morphing set list.

"The goal keeps changing, as it should," says Lesh, the experimental jam pioneer. "You can never finish your quest for ever more expressive realms in your art."

The shows are Lesh's first since a dust-up over free concert downloads caused a schism among Dead bandmates in December.

The Dead has always been known for allowing the taping and sharing of bootlegs among its fans. But since Garcia's death in 1995, the group's most dependable source of income has been the repackaging of live shows.

With the recent shift to online music distribution, the group now offers many of those shows for download on its official Web site. That led to a decision in November to pull thousands of free recordings off the Internet after years of accessibilty.

Deadheads responded furiously, threatening to boycott all Grateful Dead merchandise.
Lesh replied on his Web site in support of free downloads, adding that he hadn't been notified of the decision. "We are musicians not businessmen," he wrote.

Bob Weir was cast as the villain by angry fans. But as Weir told me in a recent interview, "If they can find a way to download our songs for free and pay for my kids' college tuitions, and pay for my employees' kids' college tuitions, then I'm all for it."

The criticism of Weir is unjust. He's not greedy. It's just that his generosity is foremost to a family of longtime employees at Grateful Dead Productions.

It's true, by the end of the Dead's decades of touring, they were raking in $50 million a year. But they also had a road crew of 80-plus employees who enjoyed health and retirement benefits.

In December, a compromise was struck, allowing the downloading of Dead shows taped live by fans - but permitting only listening streams for the higher-quality soundboard recordings.

Deadheads remain disappointed. It's the soundboards everyone wants, in many cases because Phil's bass is inaudible on the audience recordings.

Of the compromise, Lesh quips: "It is kind of like closing the barn door after the horses run out."
Lesh is ready to move on. Now back on the road, he's content wandering up and down the scales on his fretboard.

"The goal keeps changing, and the path keeps changing," he says, "so we have to be aware of that and step carefully."

michael.kane@nypost.com

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