Lesh and Phriends
From Burlington Free Press:
Lesh and Phriends
Published: Sunday, July 9, 2006
By Sally Pollak
Free Press Staff Writer
Riding in his tour bus on the Mass. Pike on Thursday morning, searching the rig for a relatively quiet place to talk, Phil Lesh spoke about the road.
First, he set the road record straight:
It's been 39 years, not 40, that Lesh, a bass player and singer, has been on the road playing music as a member of the Grateful Dead or other bands, including his current lineup of Phil Lesh and Friends.
That's 39 years of buses and airplanes and hotels and restaurants and sound checks and cities far, far from home.
That's 39 years -- of the 66 Lesh has been alive -- of being at the spiritual and artistic center of a "proto-community," in his words, that took shape in and around San Francisco and Stanford University in the early '60s and that Lesh still senses in his audience today.
"It's basically the same community that's been underground since the '60s," he said.
That's 39 years of meeting the challenges of the road and the demands of the audience -- demands that he says have not diminished in that time. "They want us to be spectacular," Lesh said, "And we try."
That's the part -- playing music -- that makes it possible to withstand the rest.
"You kind of get numb to the same aspects of the road, although it will drive you crazy," Lesh said. "It's very stressful.
"I was just talking last night with someone, saying the artistic payoff of playing the music doesn't quite balance the stress. There's a little bit of residue of stress that's always leftover, but the music is powerful enough so it's not overwhelming."
The friends Lesh is traveling and playing with come to the Champlain Valley Exposition on Wednesday. They include singer Joan Osborne and guitarist Larry Campbell, who played with Bob Dylan for many years.
"What I've tried to do is bring in musicians who aren't part of the Grateful Dead scene," he said. "That have a different attitude and a different perspective and a different set of values to bring to the music."
Campbell brings a "psychedelic sensibility" to the band, Lesh said.
"Larry's a guy who has all this music in him, and he just wants to let it out. He's like a kid in a candy store," Lesh said. "I'm letting him play whatever he wants.
"On certain songs, I'll ask him to play this lick; it kind of identifies the song: But don't play it the way Jerry played it. Play it your way."
He plays as many Grateful Dead songs as possible at the shows. Lesh is impressed by the group's version of "Attics of My Mind," whose three-part harmony and trippy lyrics on "American Beauty" are dead-on Dead.
"I must say with all due modesty," Lesh said, "it sounds bloody beautiful."
Playing with Phish
Lesh will share the bill -- and probably the stage -- with two musicians whose home base for about 20 years was just miles from the fairgrounds: Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon.
Though the two bands play separate sets, Anastasio, the former leader of Phish, has been sitting in with Lesh at the shows. There are nights when Anastasio plays entire sets with Lesh and Friends, an addition Lesh said he expects -- and certainly hopes -- for the Vermont gig.
"He's really loving it, and I'm loving it, too," Lesh said. "Trey has a pretty unique musical mind. When he brings that formidable mind to bear on Grateful Dead music, it's really quite an experience.
"When that combines with the band I have, which is a phenomenal band, it creates an immense synergy."
Gordon, who played bass in Phish, also sometimes play with Lesh. He's joined the band on banjo and added another bass line. These bass duets are a lot of fun for the players, Lesh said.
"We get to play like sandworms in heat and wind around one another," he said.
The musicians don't talk about comparisons between the Grateful Dead and Phish, Lesh said. The relationship between the bands was explored by critics and fans, in particular after Garcia's death, as Phish was sometimes seen as the jam-band-in-waiting.
"We talk about the now," he said. "We don't talk about the past."
The subject is relevant, he said, only as the Grateful Dead might've influenced the playing and musicianship of Phish.
"It really informs the way they play when we're playing together," Lesh said, "but it's not a really big factor. They're all such consummate musicians in their own right."
Acid and rock
More than a decade after Garcia's death, Lesh misses his longtime bandmate. Garcia led the Grateful Dead on guitar and vocals and collaborated with Robert Hunter on songwriting.
"He's the reason I joined the band," Lesh said. "He invited me. If it had been anybody else, I might not have done it."
Garcia's death, in August 1995, came just two months after the Dead played at (the aptly named) Highgate, a show that Dylan opened.
The crowd of about 90,000 people is believed to be the largest gathering ever in Vermont -- a rural, north-country outpost of the proto-community Lesh has been part of for 40 years.
Lesh had wanted to play with Garcia since they met, but said he didn't see how it would happen. He played jazz trumpet and Garcia was a folk guitarist. "It seemed like never the twain shall meet," he said.
The music started to evolve toward rock 'n' roll, and the players found common ground.
Lesh listened to the music, to long-ago gigs, to write his 2005 memoir, "Searching for the Sound: My Life With the Grateful Dead."
Inspired by flashbacks to write the book, and by vivid memories of the acid tests and early years of hanging out, he turned to the music to help him remember.
"It was really cool," Lesh said. "The music took me right back to the spirit and the mind-set."
The Dead's roots are instrumental in creating their devoted following, Lesh said. For about 30 years, the group was a permanent floating hippie rock 'n' roll band.
The Grateful Dead grew out of four or five years of hanging out, going to parties and playing music. Sometimes, they hung out next door to Ken Kesey's house in Palo Alto, Calif., a bunch of kids talking and raving. Kesey occasionally came over and told them they were too rowdy, and kicked them out.
"He was trying to work on a book," Lesh said. "I could understand it."
Later, when the acid tests with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters got started, the Grateful Dead became the house band.
This was a turning point for the group. It marked the beginning of the Grateful Dead's emergence as a cultural institution.
They would become the only institution from that era to survive long enough, in its original form and spirit, to develop into a community, Lesh said.
"I think that it was a sense of freedom, and at the time a sense of danger and safety, in the same place," Lesh said. "You could feel free to take some risks -- spiritually or physically or whatever -- and yet you knew you were surrounded by kindred spirits."
And there was the music.
Contact Sally Pollak at firstname.lastname@example.org or 660-1859.
LESH: If you go
Published: Sunday, July 9, 2006
WHAT: Phil Lesh and Friends and Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon with the Benevento Russo Duo; Anastasio and Gordon will close the show
WHEN: 4 p.m. Wednesday. Lot opens at 8 a.m.; gates open at 3 p.m.
WHERE: Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction TICKETS: $54.50 in advance; $56.50 day of show
AVAILABLE: Flynn Regional Box Office (863-5966; www.flynntix.org) Organ donation: A personal plea
In 1998, Phil Lesh underwent liver transplant surgery in which he received a liver from an organ donor. The surgery was to treat infection from hepatitis C.
In his concerts, Lesh, 66, asks audience members to become organ donors. It's simple to do, he says, noting that you only have to tell a family member that you would like to donate an organ or organs in the event of death.
It is not necessary to fill out a donor card or note your intention on your driver's license, according to the Center for Donation and Transplant in Albany, N.Y., which serves western Vermont.
"I'm out there urging people to be organ donors every night," Lesh said. "The significance is I got to stay alive and watch my kids play Little League and watch them grow up and learn to play music.
"I would say that's probably the most invaluable gift that anyone can receive."
For more information, visit www.cdtny.org.