Continuing To Rise From The Dead
Continuing To Rise From The Dead: Phil Lesh & Friends At Jones Beach
By: David Schultz
Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo Join Lesh For A Jamming Night On Long Island
While Deadheads worldwide prepare to honor the memory of Jerry Garcia on the 11th anniversary of his passing, Phil Lesh & Friends, the eponymously named band led by the Dead's bassist, and Ratdog, guitarist Bob Weir's longtime band, are doing more than simply keeping the Grateful Dead's legacy alive; they are adding a satisfying afterword to the band's storied career. Despite the lack of any significant new material since Garcia's death, both Lesh and Weir have proven to be consistently successful touring attractions by using the same simple, battle tested formula: play Grateful Dead songs for Grateful Dead fans. The old fans still turn out in droves but it's the new fans, most too young to have experienced the Dead in their prime, if at all, that are keeping this franchise afloat. This past week, both Lesh and Weir brought their respective "second acts" to New York: Phil & Friends playing an outdoor show on the Long Island Sound at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York; Weir bringing Ratdog to New York City's world-famous Radio City Music Hall.
Since gathering his friends around him, Lesh's Friends have included musicians of All-Star proportion, including such notable names as Steve Kimock, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Al Schnier and current Lesh fave Ryan Adams. His current group of Friends is comprised of musician's musicians: singer Joan Osborne, guitarist Larry Campbell, keyboardist Rob Barraco, pedal steel guitarist Barry Sless, drummer John Molo and saxophonist Greg Osby. Osborne may be Phil's most recognizable Friend, having had a moderately successful solo career highlighted by the 1995 radio success of "One Of Us." The versatile and multi-talented Campbell handles lead guitar duties, coming to the Dead bassist's side after spending much of the past decade touring with Bob Dylan. Campbell, one of the newer members of the band, joins longtime Friends Barraco, Sless and Molo. Veteran saxophonist Greg Osby rounds out Phil's latest batch of acquaintances, braving the often troublesome brass-unfriendly winds of Jones Beach. As Phish's Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon and the Benevento/Russo Duo (unofficially referred to as G.R.A.B.) have been opening a good number of Phil & Friends' summer shows, Anastasio, a former Friend himself, has been regularly joining in the fun, usually replacing Sless during the second set. For their Jones Beach show, Anastasio did not disappoint: without fanfare, he returned for the second set to the unabashed delight of the crowd.
Even though his name is on the marquee, Lesh hardly conveys a sense of superiority or entitlement because the songs on the setlist are primarily Grateful Dead chestnuts. Instead, he disperses the leads of the various songs, smartly matching each Friend to the proper song: Barraco's voice perfectly suited the evening-opening "Playing In the Band" and the encore of "U.S. Blues;" Larry Campbell handled vocals and fronted the band on an extended run through "Big River" and Osby replaces the distinctive guitar runs of "China Cat Sunflower" with weighty saxophone licks. When not dancing sultrily along with the music, Osborne delivered bluesy vocals, standing out on a lengthy trip through "Stella Blue." Even Anastasio got into the act, his voice and guitar a perfect match for second set's opening couplet of "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire On The Mountain."
In 2005, when Lesh co-hosted the Jammy Awards, he joined temperamental guitarist Ryan Adams for a sterling performance of "Wharf Rat" and "Bird Song." Since then, whether present or not, Lesh has incorporated an Adams song into most of his shows. On this temperate evening at Jones Beach, he included Adams' Cold Roses track "Let It Ride." In contrast to the crisp first set, Lesh & Friends' second set consisted of spacey, drawn-out instrumentals. The effect may not have been entirely intentional: too often, Lesh seemed to be singing without realizing that his voice wasn't making it to the audience. When Lesh's microphone did work, he struggled with the words to "Dark Star" and "The Other One," replacing the ones he forgot with a sheepish grin that brought laughter from the crowd.
Admirably, Lesh and Weir are doing more than just fostering interest in the continually thriving Deadhead scene: having inspired numerous other bands with their psychedelic improvisational live performances, the two are exposing their fans to bands and musicians that are carrying on the Grateful Dead tradition. While Lesh pairs up with Anastasio, Gordon and The Duo, String Cheese Incident, fronted by the bluegrass loving Bill Nershi, will receive equal billing with Weir's Ratdog. The cross-pollination of the Dead's older fans with Phish's and String Cheese's younger fans has resulted in exceptionally full and wide-ranging evenings of music. In contrast to String Cheese, G.R.A.B. comes with a more complex subplot. Similar to how Lesh and Weir have moved forward in the post-Dead universe, G.R.A.B. have been drawing interest as an intriguing chapter in the ever-developing post-Phish saga. This episode: how will the Phish duo interact with the Duo?
Their lengthy opening set at Jones Beach encompassed the balmy early evening, consisting of a nice mix of Anastasio's solo material, a couple Gordon compositions, a Benevento/Russo Duo tune (the gorgeous "Something For Rockets") and a pair of wonderfully eclectic covers. The sharing endemic to the jamband scene spread comprehensively throughout the foursome: Anastasio and Gordon's fame, experience and recognition providing the rub to the Duo; Benevento and Russo's freshness, youth and innovative energy spreading to the veteran musicians. At 5:00, while most of the audience obliviously tailgated or remained stuck in the Friday evening morass known as the Long Island Expressway, The Duo performed an all-too-brief opening set focusing primarily on material from their new album Play, Pause, Stop. Those who made it into the amphitheatre early quickly learned why Benevento, an inventive keyboard player, and Russo, a masterful drummer, have drawn the raves they have received, including the 2005 Jammy Award for New Groove Of The Year. Strutting their estimable stuff much earlier in the afternoon freed the Duo to fill less prominent but still significant supporting roles for Anastasio and Gordon.
Even though G.R.A.B. had a couple weeks together under their belt, they were still finding their comfort zone with each other. Benevento and Russo are adept at predicting what directions each will go in; obviously, so are Anastasio and Gordon. As a foursome, they seem to be in the final stages of finding a true comfort zone, resulting in some wandering instrumental interludes. On the opener, "Plasma," they engaged in some traditional jamming; offering more distinctly Phishy jamming later in the set on "Suskind Hotel" and "Dragonfly." The shrewdness of the group's decision to cover Wings' "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," which segued nicely into Stealers Wheel's "Stuck In The Middle With You," wasn't matched by the actual performance; a trait shared by a number of Phish's covers (e.g. "Tubthumping," "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It"). The reaction of the audience to the familiar tunes, especially Gerry Rafferty's Reservoir Dogs classic, indicated that they appreciated the effort. In closing with Anastasio's "Shine," G.R.A.B. finished on the highest of notes, even if the bespectacled singer's voice seemed to give out during the set closer.
Lesh & Friends, along with Ratdog, are continuing a legacy that began in the sixties, extending their reach to a newer generation of fans. Towards the end of Lesh's show, he guided the band into an old Dead set-closing standard, a percussion-heavy, thumping version of "Not Fade Away." The classic Buddy Holly song seemed sharply poignant: anyone boating on the Sound that night surely heard the honest and heartfelt exhortation of Deadheads, both young and old, joyously proclaiming a truth that has become self-evident over these many years: "No, our love will not fade away."