With Phil Lesh & Friends, the Dead lives on
BROOMFIELD, Colo. – During his time with the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh never looked ahead to a time when there was no Grateful Dead. It wouldn’t have fit the Dead’s way of doing things. The Dead were the ultimate in-the-moment rock band, playing the notes and the songs that fit the particular city they were in, the audience in front of them, that night’s alignment of the stars and planets. Plus, the Dead endured – their long, strange trip lasted 30 years, from the time they were proto-San Francisco hippie kids until they were gray, middle-age, and singing about long roads leading home. Their popularity only grew, and sometimes it seemed like they could go on forever.To Lesh, the band’s bassist, it always looked that way. So there was no cause to contemplate life after the Dead, imagine what projects he might pursue if the band ever did come its final rest.”I never gave it a moment’s thought,” the 71-year-old said from California. “The Grateful Dead was eternal. It was a cosmic phenomenon.”In a very real sense, Lesh has been proved right. Strictly speaking, the Grateful Dead came to a close in August 1995 with the death of singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia. Little was clear about what would happen to the music, the musicians and the audience after Garcia died, but one thing was certain: The Grateful Dead name would be retired. But the music has carried on with improbable force. There are countless Grateful Dead tribute bands roaming the country; one of those, Dark Star Orchestra, is in its 15th year of recreating entire Grateful Dead shows, song by song. There have been bluegrass albums and reggae albums covering the Dead; among those who have added Dead songs to their catalogue are Elvis Costello, Sublime, The Decemberists, Lyle Lovett and the Stanford Marching Band. On Feb. 19, in Snowmass Village, the Motet, a groove-funk band from the Front Range, will perform their Funk Is Dead show, of all-Dead material; earlier this week, another Colorado band, Shakedown Street, which devotes itself to covering the Dead, brought its 25th anniversary tour to Carbondale.The members of the Grateful Dead have hardly distanced themselves from their past. On several occasions, the surviving core members of the band – singer-guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and Lesh – have reunited to tour under the name The Dead. Over the past several years, Weir and Lesh have toured frequently as Furthur. In both cases, the repertoire consists mostly of Grateful Dead material.The longest-running, and perhaps the most ambitious of the post-Grateful projects has been Lesh’s Phil & Friends. The concept, launched in 1999, was to bring into the fold numerous musicians – rockers, soul singers, jazzmen, and loads of people from the jam-band world – to reinterpret the music. Phil & Friends has been in retirement since New Year’s Eve 2008-’09, as Lesh focused on Furthur, but the ensemble gets resurrected with a three-show run, Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 16-18, at the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield. The line-up includes Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, jazz guitarist John Scofield, and Jackie Greene, a young singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has become a close associate of Lesh’s. When I commented on the abundance of guitars in the group, Lesh laughed.”Not enough for me. I want more,” he said.The return of Phil & Friends is accompanied by the latest innovation in the realm of the Dead. On Feb. 23, Lesh will open a venue called Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, Calif., the town where the Grateful Dead had its longtime headquarters, Club Front. The venue, in a space formerly occupied by a seafood restaurant, will be home base for three of Lesh’s groups: the Ramble Band, featuring Lesh’s sons, Graeme and Brian, and Jackie Greene, and which is modeled after the Midnight Ramble house concerts thrown by Levon Helm, former drummer of The Band, in upstate New York; the Terrapin Allstars, which includes musicians from the San Francisco area; and Phil & Friends, for which Lesh has big plans.”I’m hoping to bring in everybody I’ve ever played with. And more,” the 71-year-old said from his new office at Terrapin Crossroads. Lesh said he plans to sit in to play some casual, after-dinner music on Feb. 23, with a bigger bash set for March 17.••••Lesh, a native of the San Francisco Bay area, began his music career well outside of rock ‘n’ roll. His early training was on classical violin; he then moved on to jazz trumpet and at Mills College, he studied avant-garde classical composition. So when a group of musicians – Weir, Kreutzmann, a blues singer named Ron McKernan who went by Pigpen, and banjoist-turned-guitarist Garcia – invited Lesh to join them in making a move from acoustic folk to electric rock, Lesh brought in an outsider’s perspective. Compounding the venture into the unknown, Lesh had no familiarity with the instrument he was handed, the electric bass, nor with what was going on in rock bass-playing at the time.”My style derives from Bach or Mahler – any of those composers for whom the bass line is what everything was built on,” he said. “My influences weren’t bass players in rock. If I do say so myself, I don’t play the bass like anybody else.”Lesh also takes credit for one of the Grateful Dead’s key innovations – the rock-style jam. “I like to think I was instrumental in bringing the idea in that you could stretch out these songs, that you could play ‘Midnight Hour’ for 45 minutes,” he said, noting that he did take some inspiration from “East-West,” the 1966 album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “I don’t think that occurred to the other members of the band till I played Coltrane, the modal stuff, for them. I had a flash that if you could place that into a rock ‘n’ roll format, it would be revolutionary. And it turned out to be true.”While Lesh wasn’t a primary vocalist or songwriter in the Dead, he had a huge voice in the music. Influenced by Bach’s notion of counterpoint and by jazz, he played his bass like a second lead instrument rather than as a rhythm instrument, laying down a solid, predictable foundation for the other players. My favorite observation about his style was that often you had to hear the entire song before Lesh’s bass line made any sense. Lesh’s contributions made the Dead’s music unpredictable, strange, harmonically sophisticated and loud, and he became a fan favorite.Still, it was far from a given that Lesh would be the primary caretaker of the music in the post-Grateful era. Not only was he usually the fourth option as a lead singer in the Dead, but he pursued very few opportunities outside the group.”The Dead was my band. It consumed my entire life. I never felt like having a side band or being a solo artist,” he said. “But at a point after Jerry died, I realized I wanted to carry on the music.”Lesh has developed a particular way to extend the Dead’s legacy. Rather than create a new body of work, Phil & Friends, Furthur and The Dead have focused on reinterpreting the songs of the Grateful Dead (with a handful of new originals, and some Dylan, Beatles and Pink Floyd covers throw in). But the old songbook has been refreshed: songs are rearranged (repeatedly) and placed in different slots in the setlist. To the delight of Deadheads, songs that had been retired ages ago – “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” “Cosmic Charlie,” “Viola Lee Blues” – have been resurrected.Most significant in Lesh’s view, the music is being handed over to other musicians. The membership of Phil & Friends has included singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, guitarist Derek Trucks, Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson, soul singer Joan Osborne and members of Phish, moe. and Little Feat. The song titles remain the same, but the playing of them evolves, and the catalog itself becomes like classical music or the Great American Songbook – something meant not just for the musicians who originally created it, but to live on, constantly being re-imagined.”As far as it can be defined, I wanted to treat the music like repertory – bring in different musicians, allow them to read these songs, bring different perspectives to them, mix it up. Stretch them out, make them faster, slower,” Lesh said. “I guess you’d have to say my prime directive was to take it further.”A few decades ago, it would have been a good bet that the Grateful Dead would go into sharp contraction once there was no Jerry Garcia to gravitate to, no Grateful Dead bus per se to jump on. But Lesh says the music was structured as a positive feedback loop – the music has sustained itself.”I’m not surprised [at the continuing popularity] because the material lent itself to openness,” he said. “I think it was by design that we made music that could be extended and elaborated upon. It’s not surprising that other people have taken hold of this and brought it to new dimensions. I find it very gratifying, actually.”••••While the Dead were often portrayed in the mainstream as a ’60s throwback, Lesh for one seems a very up-to-date presence. He has a keen focus in interviews, listening carefully to questions and responding to what was asked. He projects a sense of amusement, laughing a lot and paying attention to his words and phrases. He brings an especially modern thinking to the prospect of recording any more music.”Recording to me is so 20th century. As far as I’m concerned it really peaked somewhere back there,” said Lesh, who had a liver transplant in 1998 and gives a minute or so at every concert to stump for liver donations. “It doesn’t offer any kind of the payback that I’m used to getting.”Against that backdrop, his current taste in music seems oddly retrograde. He listens mostly to country. “I find the level of musicianship and beauty is so much deeper than any other kind of music out there,” he said, adding that there are no particular country artists he favors; it’s the genre itself.I invited Lesh to look forward for a moment: Would the Grateful Dead’s music last forever?”With all the people who seen interested in playing this music, it’s hard to tell,” he said. “But that said, everything fades away sooner or later. It’s in god’s hands, not for us to know.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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