Review: The lighter side of Lesh & Friends
BROOMFIELD, Colo. – About halfway through the Phil Lesh & Friends show last Thursday, the opener of a three-night run at the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield, I commented to my traveling partner, Alan, about the upbeat vibe of the show. The songs, I noted, were virtually all in bright major keys; the lyrics leaned toward the feel-good. Most of all what I was noticing was a hop in the beat: Shows in the post-Grateful Dead era (most of which center around Lesh, the Dead’s bassist) often come with a loose theme, and this one seemed geared mostly toward a rhythmic bounce.Looking back over the setlist, I’m not so sure about the lighthearted nature of the songs. There were, in fact, a few slow, world-weary ballads: “Standing on the Moon,” “Wharf Rat.” There was a song about death (“Dire Wolf,” with the refrain “Please don’t murder me”) and one about despair (“Just a Little Light”); the dark-tinged suite “That’s It For the Other One,” and “Help On the Way,” which might be lyrically uplifting (“Without love in the dream it’ll never come true”) but is played with a profusion of stinging minor chords.I think what I was feeling, what I mistook for musical cheeriness, was the ecstasy of the musicians making the music. The Grateful Dead were a pioneering band, an enduring band and on many nights a blisteringly good band. But they were not, at least in the latter stages, a happy band; they were too weighted down by drugs, popularity, expectations, their own history.Phil Lesh & Friends – at least this version of the rotating ensemble – is vividly blissful. They hug between songs, between sets; they hug as often as they can. They look at one another; during a particularly impressive guitar solo by Warren Haynes in “Just a Little Light” – a song that Haynes seems to own, despite the fact that it was written by the late Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland – Lesh and guitarist John Scofield seemed to take a break just to admire Haynes. Lesh, at 72, is as joyful as they come, the very definition of avuncular in the way he treats protgs like singer-guitarist Jackie Greene and drummer Joe Russo. And Lesh seems especially enthused by the latest Phil & Friends membership, something of an all-star lineup of Friends from the past. (Rounding out the ensemble was keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who was seated a little too far from the action to make much of an imprint.)The good vibes come out in the music. Despite the presence of three guitarists, the sound was clean and coordinated; not once did it seem as if the guitarists were stepping on one another. Lesh is no great vocalist, but having Haynes and Greene do most of the lead singing made Lesh’s turns in the spotlight – especially for his country-rocker “Pride of Cucamonga,” which was tragically excluded from the Grateful Dead’s repertoire – welcome.Even songs about sorrow took on an air of uplift. And the truly upbeat tunes – “Scarlet Begonias,” “Franklin’s Tower,” the debut of a cover of the Who’s “Magic Bus” – were true firstname.lastname@example.org
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