Grateful Dead alum Phil Lesh relishes risk
By Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.
Special to The Courier-Journal
In the early years of rock 'n' roll, the bass was most often used to provide a basic underpinning to the music, not unlike the role of the tuba or string bass in the early years of jazz.
Just as Duke Ellington's bassist Jimmy Blanton pioneered the use of the instrument as a lead voice, so too did rock musicians such as Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead expand the role of the bass to that of an additional lead instrument.
Forty years after the founding of the Grateful Dead, and 10 years after Jerry Garcia's death, Phil Lesh is still making provocative and challenging music with his group, Phil Lesh and Friends.
Unlike many bands, such as the Dead, Lesh consciously juggles the personnel of his "Friends" in order to bring a sense of risk-taking to his music.
The current lineup of Phil Lesh and Friends will perform Tuesday at the Louisville Palace.
Lesh will be joined by Joan Osborne, vocals; Larry Campbell, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, cittern and vocals (Bob Dylan's band for nine years); Greg Osby, alto saxophone (a progressive jazz player with recordings under his own name); Rob Barraco, keyboards and vocals (from the post-Garcia incarnation of the band which called itself "The Dead"); Barry Sless, pedal steel guitar (a founding member of the David Nelson Band); and John Molo, drums (formerly with Bruce Hornsby and John Fogerty).
In a conversation from his tour bus, en route to a show outside Boston, Lesh covered topics ranging from his 2005 autobiography to an upcoming stint as composer-in-residence at Stanford University's Computer Music Center.
Much of the focus was on his musical philosophy. After playing in the Grateful Dead for 30 years, he said that it was "comfortable to know what people are going to do (musically), but it is a blessing and a curse."
The same comfort level which could lead to intuitive group improvisation could also "deprive the music of the elements of risk and danger. One of the functions of art is to confound expectations."
He expanded on his music philosophy:
"Art, music and theater are all ways for humans to perceive disorientation and cognitive dissonance and danger without ... actually endangering themselves."
Thus, he has a lineup of musicians for Phil Lesh and Friends that, by changing regularly (even mid-tour), can bring back a sense of musical risk-taking.
The band appearing in Louisville mixes influences ranging from country and country-influenced rock (Sless and Campbell) to progressive jazz (Osby).
When asked about performing with jazz guitarist John Scofield earlier in the tour and jazz saxophonist Osby, Lesh said that his experience with jazz musicians is that "they are so fluid they can adapt to almost any context. They come into the music from a different perspective ... (and) add spice or flavor."
The adventure of playing with jazz musicians is "like opening a door and finding a stained-glass window," he said.
As to the mix of styles represented by the players, Lesh said: "What I'm trying to do is create tensions -- the way music moves, it creates tension and release. The more different flavors and approaches and points of view ... the richer it will be. I frankly enjoy it most when the tension is unresolved, when the various styles of music are pushing and pulling each other."
With one exception, the band playing in Louisville is the same one appearing on Lesh's first DVD, "Phil Lesh & Friends Live at The Warfield Theater," shot in May in San Francisco and scheduled for release on Halloween. The exception is John Scofield on guitar instead of Barry Sless.
In addition to 2½ hours of concert footage, the bonus features will include a conversation about improvisation with Lesh, Scofield and Osby.
For those who can't wait, Lesh offers soundboard audio recordings of his concerts available directly following the show through Instant Live, a process by which a show is recorded and immediately burned to CD for purchase after the show.
Lesh's autobiography, "Searching for The Sound: My Life With the Grateful Dead," was recently released in paperback. The book has neither chapter headings nor an index.
Lesh said he had made up his mind early on that he didn't want them, at least in part because "I didn't want people picking up the book and looking to see if they were in it."
The book spends far more space on the years up to the early 1980s than on the time since then.
Lesh explained that was because in the latter years of the Grateful Dead, "There was not that much interesting detail -- simply the crises that were constantly coming up."
The Grateful Dead were known for lengthy concerts that, over the course of a tour, would be different from one performance to the next. Songs would weave into and out of one another, and set lists never consisted of the same songs night after night.
Lesh continues this approach in his live performances. A brief check of set lists from recent concerts, found at www.phillesh.net, shows that he is performing songs primarily from the Grateful Dead songbook, but mixing songs from the earliest years ("Dark Star" and "Caution," for example) with middle period pieces (including "Help on the Way," "Slipknot!" and "Franklin's Tower)," as well as covers such as Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and the blues of Junior Parker's "Next Time You See Me."
Asked if he alters song choice and how he performs based on factors such as playing indoors or outdoors, Lesh replied: "Absolutely! The set list is going to be very different from an outdoor afternoon show to one performed indoors at night or even outdoors at night."
In short, Tuesday's performance at the Louisville Palace will be an exercise in improvisation, not just a run-through of greatest hits.