A Time for Healing
Phil Lesh & Friends
Beacon Theatre - New York, NY
November 27, 2001
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2002, Volume 9, #2
Written by Aaron M. Cohen
Phil Lesh & Friends' November 27 concert — the second in a week-long run of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City — was proof that this band just keeps getting better. Last year, Lesh's fall tour kicked off with two unexpectedly strong shows in Burlington, Vermont, and since then, they've been making genuine waves in the jamband community. The current lineup has remained unchanged since it codified at that show just a little over a year ago: Phil Lesh on bass, John Molo on drums, Rob Barraco (formerly of the Zen Tricksters) on keyboards, Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit) and Warren Haynes (Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers Band) on guitar. They now boast a greater level of interaction, particularly during the "jamming" portions, as well as an album's worth of originals — both of which help the group to transcend the status of "Grateful Dead cover band featuring an actual member of the Dead."
The first set started nicely with the laid-back Grateful Dead chestnut Here Comes Sunshine before launching into a sweet, rollicking Pride of Cucamonga. Other highlights included a sparkling rendition of the Allman Brothers Band's Blue Sky and an astounding Turn on Your Lovelight. Unfortunately, for much of the show, the sound mix was a little awkward — Lesh's bass turned down too low — and then (after he motioned to the soundboard) turned up too high! The rest of the vocals, aside from Barraco's, were also a little hard to hear. This diminished the power of the two new Warren Haynes originals (Beautifully Broken and Banks of the Deep End) interspersed throughout the set. Since those lyrics have yet to be committed to collective memory, we in the audience had to strain to discern them. These problems were more or less rectified by the end of the first set, but even then, the mix remained muddy with Lesh's microphone set too low and Herring's guitar completely lost. But why focus on the only real negative aspect of an otherwise amazing night of music? All right, then, let's get down to it.
Back to that first-set closer Turn on Your Lovelight. It started rather perfunctorily and seemed somewhat lacking in genuine enthusiasm. However, after Haynes finished singing the verses, the band picked up some serious steam. Haynes added riff after riff, the others taking their cues from him, until it became something completely different than what it started out as — and it just kept going! It was like the band was conducting a science project: how many jams can we fit inside this song? If there was any doubt that improvisation is the group's strength as well as the locus of its collective passion, that doubt should have vanished right here.
However, the real mind-blowing stuff happened during the second set beginning with Lady with a Fan, which gave way to a heavy, dark, Arabesque jam and then mutated into a chilling Morning Dew with Haynes on vocals ("Where have all the people gone, my honey?"). Some fans reported hearing Tito Puente's Oye Como Va, a song that was popularized by Santana, interwoven throughout the jam along with themes from Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain.
Later, All Along the Watchtower emerged with lyrics that seemed suddenly prophetic: "Two riders were approaching / and the wind began to howl." Lesh's arrangement of this Dylan chestnut benefitted greatly from the rhythm to which he set it. It's an unusual structural choice, but it works. As for Haynes' vocals all I can say is, that boy's got soul.
The set built up to a monumental climax with an edgy, vicious Terrapin Station, perhaps the most intense ever performed. The entire audience sprang out of their seats, emotionally singing, "Light the song with sense and color, hold away despair / more than this I will not ask / faced with mysteries dark and vast / statements just seem vain at last." It was a sign that we'd all made it through an intense healing ritual, and that we'd all shared in something extraordinary. It was a flashback to the old days, in the sense that what happened — what was said, what was performed, what was felt — formed a transcendental experience shared by all who were present. Suffice it to say, by the conclusion of the concert, all of the audience was there for the music and completely in the moment. A tightly played Scarlet Begonias added a celebratory air to conclude the show, allowing the band to leave the stage on a more upbeat note.
Since he returned to performing, Lesh has taken a moment at each show to introduce his band and make a plea for organ donations — something near and dear to his heart following his own life-saving transplant. But his speech on November 27 was something more, as Lesh, with the energy of a man in his twenties, made it clear how much he loved playing in New York, and enjoyed interacting with the audience. It seemed like everyone was expecting the encore to be Box of Rain, but as the "deadicated" among us know, Lesh's quintet is anything but predictable. Instead the group delivered an appropriate Built to Last like they meant it, sending the audience home healed.
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Copyright © 2001 The Music Box