The Teacher

Phil Lesh & Friends

Riviera Theatre - Chicago

[October 19, 2000]

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2001, Volume 8, #1

Written by John Metzger


It's hard to figure out just where Phil Lesh and Friends fits into the grand scheme of things. Is it just a glorified cover band, or is it out to create something new? On the one hand, Lesh's concerts have routinely intermixed songs from the Grateful Dead's vast repertoire with other choice cover selections. He has yet to record any new material and has released only one album an exquisite live collection recorded with Hot Tuna's Jorma Kaukonen and Pete Sears. On the other hand, what Lesh does with this cover material most definitely can be considered fresh, and he recently set an old Robert Hunter poem to music (Walker after Midnight) and composed a new song (Mirror of Thalassa), which suggests he is beginning to lean towards the latter if only he could get his band in order.

It appears for the moment at least that Lesh has settled on his keyboard player (Rob Barraco) and drummer (John Molo), and with the unfortunate death of Allen Woody, he also may have found his new regular guitarist in Warren Haynes. There's little doubt that some stability in Lesh's outfit from tour to tour would certainly help him move forward. With time, his band would become tighter and therefore more capable of absorbing new material.

However, the question remains: Is this the final incarnation of his group, which also currently includes guitarist Jimmy Herring, or are there more changes yet to come? Of course, that's not the simplest of queries to answer, and only Lesh knows for sure if the chemistry is exactly right. For what it's worth, his October 19 concert at Chicago's Riviera Theatre made the case for both sides of the equation.

Try as they might, the band just couldn't seem to get in synch during the opening set. Phish's Sample in a Jar was a sluggish mess, and Dire Wolf felt flatly uninspired. In addition, when Lesh withdrew from a segue into The Wheel so that he could tune his bass, the rest of the group looked hopelessly lost. As a result, the entire groove derailed, and the momentum they had built came to a screeching halt.

Making matters worse, Barraco and Herring continuously fought a tug of war with each other and with the rest of the band throughout the set. Barraco's playing was frightfully pedestrian, and though he harmonized quite well, his lead vocals were sub-par. Likewise, Herring consistently failed to engage the rest of the outfit in musical conversation. Instead, he barreled over them with his one-dimensional attack, leaving the songs in ramshackle disarray. Were it not for the lockstep rhythm of Molo and Lesh, each song most certainly would have fallen apart.

Whatever happened during the set break, however, seemed to turn things around rather dramatically. It was like a different band had returned to the stage. Granted, the second set, which featured more energetic selections, played to the strengths of Lesh's current line-up. However, when they reconvened, the doors of communication had been flung open, and the musicians suddenly were conversing on some unspoken cosmic level. Cream's Sunshine of Your Love was a virtual tour de force, and The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion) was a frenzied whirlwind of hyperactive motion. Even Unbroken Chain seethed against its moorings. And then there was Viola Lee Blues. The song began with a bubbly Taxman-meets-Strange Brew rhythm before it violently erupted spewing molten lava-like phrases, which gave birth to a furious Turn on Your Lovelight before once again congealing for Viola Lee Blues' conclusion.

Such is the nature of improvisation. That is: Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. The trick is to know not only when the music is failing to move forward, but also what steps are necessary to put it back on the right path. Lesh fully understands this. He comprehends it inside and out. After all, he lived it and breathed it with the Grateful Dead for so long that it has become a part of his soul.

Yet, these are different times. Though improvisation is the supposed to be the heart of the jam band scene, it is something that has long been forgotten. It's a lost art that few musicians seem able to perform, but it's not too late. Where Lesh was once a student of spontaneity, he has now become the teacher. Let's hope the musicians and fans are all paying close attention.

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Copyright 2000 The Music Box