Phil Lesh & Friends keeps the sound of the Grateful Dead alive
From Z Wire:
A Touch of Grey
By: Matt Smith , ec editor
Phil Lesh & Friends keeps the sound of the Grateful Dead alive
Phil Lesh needs little or no introduction. The classically trained musician first picked up the electric bass guitar when he and a few Bay Area friends formed the Grateful Dead in 1965, and his adventurous playing set the tone for the group's legendary concert explorations right up until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995.
Lesh has continued the long, strange musical trip over the past decade. The writer of such beloved Dead songs as "Box of Rain" and "Unbroken Chain" sometimes reunites with surviving group members under the auspices of The Other Ones or The Dead, but is mostly focused on a roving cast of all-star players, Phil Lesh & Friends.
Lesh is currently touring with a group featuring "One of Us" singer Joan Osborne, former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on various stringed instruments, acclaimed jazz saxophonist Greg Osby, keyboard player Rob Barraco (Zen Tricksters), Barry Sless from the Grateful Dead cousin David Nelson Band on pedal steel, and drummer John Molo, best known for his association with sometime Grateful Dead keyboardist Bruce Hornsby. Got all that?
The jam-tastic tour, which hits Scranton on Tuesday, July 11, also features former Phish members Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon, along with openers the Benevento Russo Duo. ec/dc caught up with Lesh in transit between gigs in the New Jersey cities of Camden and Holmdel to talk about his Friends, becoming one of the "mud people," and whether The Dead will ever tour again?
On the way to the gig?
Yeah, I'm on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike?
No, counting the clouds.
How's the tour going?
Great. We had a band with John Scofield in it, then John had to go off to Europe to play some heavy-duty jazz gigs, so we brought in Barry Sless from back home (in California). And Greg Osby, the great alto saxophone player, is playing with us for the rest of the tour, too. We've got a completely new band and it's working out very well.
Is it difficult to work in new players?
Yes and no. It depends on how much experience they have with the music. That's part of the challenge and part of the payoff, because when musicians aren't really familiar with the context of what they're doing, they tend to play outside of themselves a little more.
But the way your band is set up, you're used to being a host to other great musicians.
It's not exactly the revolving door - I like to keep aggregates together long enough to let them develop into what they're going to be - but at the same time I do like to mix it up.
This particular lineup seems to be getting some good reviews on this tour. Bonnaroo (Festival in Tennessee) was a big success?
Bonnaroo was a great gas for me. Just as a participant, it was one of the best musical festival experiences I've ever had.
It was probably better than some of the festivals in the '60s and '70s?
In many ways, it was, because the amenities were there, the infrastructure was there. Everybody could be comfortable, and leave their lives behind them, and enjoy music together in a communal context without stress or wondering, "Jesus, is there going to be water in my sleeping bag" or "Am I going to become one of the mud people?"
Back to the band: You have this accomplished ensemble of players, but would you consider Joan Osborne the lead singer?
She is definitely a lead singer when she wants to be and when the context demands it. That's a great thing to have. Her sensibility and her earthiness, and her feminine qualities, it's almost like having Pigpen (late Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron McKernan) back in a weird way. It's been a growing relationship with Joan and the music. She's beginning to own some of these songs.
Are there any particular songs that have gotten new life on this tour?
(Pause) Hard to say. The idea is that the whole repertoire gets a new face, a new personality, or some kind of new image with each band that comes along.
I know that you're doing a voting initiative, and you do blood drives and food drives at your shows. Do you like having this platform to reach people on issues that are important to you?
Oh, yeah. I was just telling someone last night that if I can do this as apparently effectively as I am, one of the reasons is because I've got a bully pulpit. I've got a captive audience and they have to listen to me every damn night tell about the only reason I'm still alive is because a young man woke up one morning and said, "Hey, if anything ever happens to me, I want to be an organ donor." (Lesh received a liver transplant in 1998 after contracting Hepatitis C.)
But you're not someone who thinks that musicians should just keep their mouths shut?
I'm doing it for a pretty noble cause, but frankly, the state that our country and our world is in at this point, I think every bully pulpit should be used to the max. The opposition is certainly doing that.
People can buy recordings of the shows as they leave the venue?
We're working with Instant Live on this tour to provide CDs at the show, CDs that can be mail-ordered or ordered online, and online downloads - and if there's any other method of distribution that I've forgotten about, we probably have that covered too. ... It's a reasonable price, and the best thing about it is that it's mixed down. It's not just the soundboard mix slapped onto two tracks, which is not always the best kind of mix that you can have at home.
Can you still tape at your shows?
Of course. Audience tapes are sometimes more valuable, at least to me. If I want to check how something sounded in the hall, I'll go listen to one of our shows on archive.org.
There was a bit of controversy with archive.org, where the soundboard recordings of Grateful Dead shows were pulled off.
Yeah, that was back then, and I think the Grateful Dead took care of that as best they could, but I think the guys in the band who made that decision - I wasn't part of it - just had some pretty bad advice from their people.
Will The Dead ride again?
You know, we talk about it, and there's a desire that, yes, it would be a good thing to do, but Bob and I, for instance, are pretty much fully devoted to and active with our band, with his Ratdog and my Friends. What we've been talking about is an event, maybe - a two- or three-day weekend, somewhere central where people could camp, like a mini-festival family reunion thing like the thing we did at Alpine (Valley in Wisconsin) in '02. And, again, it's still in the talking stages.
But you're pretty satisfied with the group you have together now?
Oh, yeah. I'm generally satisfied with all my bands - it's just the principle of change. Change is good.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Phil Lesh & Friends, Trey Anastasio & Mike Gordon, Benevento Russo Duo
WHEN: Tuesday, July 11, 5 p.m.
WHERE: Toyota Pavilion at
Montage Mountain, Scranton
on sale at all Ticketmaster outlets