Phil & Friends show prowess in the studio
May 22, 2002
For a veteran musician, Phil Lesh is something of a stranger to the process of making a modern studio album.The Grateful Dead, in which Lesh played bass guitar for 30 years, had mostly retired from the studio by the time their long, strange trip concluded in 1995. The band’s last studio recording was 1989’s “Built to Last.”Lesh’s latest group, Phil & Friends, has shown a similar reluctance to go the studio album route. The band, which featured a rotating membership when it was formed five years ago, has just one album under its belt, and that was a live effort: 1999’s “Love Will See You Through.”The studio slump ends for Lesh with today’s release of “There and Back Again,” which features almost all new, original material. Of the 11 tracks, only one – a version of the Grateful Dead’s “Liberty,” written by the songwriting team of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter – comes from outside the Phil & Friends realm. The remaining 10 songs were written by Phil and his friends: guitarists Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring and keyboardist Rob Barraco. (Filling out the quintet is drummer John Molo, who has no songwriting credits on the album.) Hunter provides lyrics for five of the new songs.And while “There and Back Again” doesn’t lack for the jam-band trademarks of guitar soloing, every solo has a point. This is no example of simply playing the jams in the studio, rolling the tape and hoping for something good.The album’s biggest success is that Phil & Friends manage to transfer their concert energy onto CD, something the Grateful Dead was not always able to do. The twin guitars of Haynes and Herring, in particular, sound consistently alive and inspired. Vocally, Lesh takes a back-seat role to Haynes and Barraco, but when the trio comes together for three-part vocal harmonies, the results are surprisingly solid. (Lesh, who played a bit part as a singer in the Dead, was never known for his talents at the microphone.)Also to their credit, Phil & Friends make no attempt to revisit Dead territory. With the notable exception of the guitar intro to “Liberty,” no part of “There and Back Again” ever sounds like the Dead. Even “Liberty” ends up in a different place than the Dead’s version, with Barraco’s keyboard and Molo’s drums lending a New Orleans feel. With its jazz-touched chord changes and Barraco’s fusionlike keyboards, Lesh’s “Midnight Train” sounds, of all things, as if it were lifted from the Steely Dan song book.Haynes, who also claims current membership in the Allman Brothers Band and his own Gov’t Mule, emerges as the most prominent friend, even eclipsing Lesh as the star of “There and Back Again.” Haynes’ “Welcome to the Underground” is a minor-key tour of the dark spaces that separate people: “I used to run with the Kennedys, hang out with the Trumps … I’ve been screwed, blues and tattooed.” Haynes’ “Patchwork Quilt” is a meditation on Garcia and his existence as a counterculture hero.On the down side, “There and Back Again” has several throwaway songs. And why the album opens with the most disposable of them all, the slight, dull “Celebration,” is baffling. The lone contributions by Barraco (“Leave Me Out of This”) and Herring (“Again and Again”) don’t show much promise from either as a songwriter.