Phil Lesh and Friends
Love Will See You Through
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2000, Volume 7, #1
Written by John Metzger
In 1998, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh returned to the stage to perform with former bandmates Bob Weir and Mickey Hart for the first time since the death of Jerry Garcia. In addition, he began his own project, which became known simply as Phil Lesh and Friends. Originally, these concerts were solely conducted in the Bay Area as benefit shows for Lesh’s Unbroken Chain Foundation. However, Lesh soon found that he enjoyed performing far too much, and his new group quickly took on a life of its own, leaving the Bay Area to tour throughout the United States.
Phil Lesh and Friends is just about as fitting a name for this band as one could find. The collective flows around an interesting concept — its members change from night to night. Those selected to perform with the legendary bassist are, of course, Lesh’s musical friends, both old and new. The unifying factor is that the musicians are quite adept at creating mind-blowing improvisational music. In most cases, the familiarity between members that this sort of playing requires can take years to develop. After all, it’s only by playing together that the musicians can learn how to anticipate and react to each other’s musical thoughts and ideas.
However, Lesh has managed to pull groups together, often at the last minute, and unify them so completely that it’s hard to tell that they haven’t been playing together for 30 years. That’s certainly a testament, not only to Lesh’s eye for talent, but also to his skill at both repeatedly selecting the right set of musicians to complement each other and being a band leader.
Love Will See You Through is the first volume of what promises to be an outstanding series of live material taken from the various incarnations of Lesh’s band. The initial outing contains the highlights of a series of concerts with Hot Tuna's Jorma Kaukonen and Pete Sears as well as drummer Prairie Prince and singers Caitlin Cornwell and Zoe Ellis. Rounding out the ensembleis Zero’s Steve Kimock, Lesh’s permanent guitarist — at least until he walked away from the recent Fall tour.
With two members of Hot Tuna in tow, it’s certainly reasonable to expect a blues-oriented set. In fact, there are several blues-based selections contained on the two-disc Love Will See You Through. The group grinds through an up-tempo Big Boss Man, pushing it through the shredder of Kaukonen’s snarled vocals. Likewise, Mr. Charlie is given a rousing treatment, fueled by Sears’ brilliant keyboard flourishes, which serve to ignite the band.
At times, though, Love Will See You Through moves far beyond the familiar fare from Hot Tuna, maneuvering into territory not tread by the Grateful Dead in a long, long time. Not surprisingly, Phil Lesh & Friends perfectly captures the essence of the ’60s heyday of improvisational jamming. The result is that a good portion of the music on Love Will See You Through is an eerie fusion of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane — almost as if by playing together, Lesh and Kaukonen reignited the embers of a fire that burned out long ago. Kaukoken tears through his guitar solos with a raging intensity that plays the perfect counterpoint to Steve Kimock’s smoother intonations, while the notes that stream from Lesh’s bass surf the music like waves on the ocean.
Since Garcia’s death, the Grateful Dead scene has splintered into countless factions, and it has evolved into the flourishing jam band movement, which is currently ripe for the picking. Though this genre has seen a spurt in audience growth as well as media attention, few groups within it seem to be able to deliver the goods. The biggest problem is that almost none of these bands are crafting meaningful songs, and therefore, they are unable to provide a soundtrack of transcendental, life-affirming music.
Enter Phil Lesh. With one fell swoop, he’s showing fans and musicians alike exactly how it’s done, and he’s doing it with an ever-changing line-up of performers. Of course, he has a truly amazing arsenal of Grateful Dead songs to select from, but what makes this all so special is that he’s not simply recreating his former band's past — he’s reinventing these songs with a focus and emphasis on both the present and the future. Just listen to Franklin’s Tower or the rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s Good Shepherd from Love Will See You Through. It’s impossible not to be moved. ˝
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box