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Backstage at the Rock & Roll Inauguration: The Dead's Phil Lesh on Obama Gig

February 5, 2009 2:48 PM ET

Talk about change: One of the bands invited to perform at one of President Obama's Inaugural Balls was the Dead, the icons formerly known as the Grateful Dead. The band was part of the rock & roll invasion that swept Washington, DC to honor Barack Obama last month, and Rolling Stone has an incredible collection of photos and memories in the new issue, on newsstands this week. In the special Random Notes, U2, John Mellencamp, James Taylor, Mary J. Blige and more artists recall sharing the stage with the man of honor (and watching Kanye West brush lint off the new president's suit). The Dead's co-founder and longtime bassist, Phil Lesh, was kind enough to give us a recap of the band's show at the Mid-Atlantic ball:

During sound check, the day before Inauguration Day, did you have to show anyone your set list for lyric concerns?
You mean did they want to vet the lyrics before we played? [Laughs] No, there was none of that. At that point, you know, it was just another gig. The way we were thinking of it, we could either do two songs for an hour, or do six songs and keep it down a little bit. Then we did the sound check and a bunch of us went over to the Huffington Post party ball. Which was supposed to be the hot ticket. Apparently there were a lot of "celebrities" there.

Did you meet any?
No, but my wife got to meet Martha Stewart.

What happened on Inauguration Day?
We were among the purple ticket holders. We got up at 8:30 in the morning and turned the corner onto 1st street , and it's solid people for three blocks. In an hour and a half we didn't go a whole block. This was just me, my wife and my son Brian. So we turned around and went back to the hotel. On the street were all these other people who couldn't get in. And they were just partying. It was like Haight Ashbury, only better somehow. Because it was everybody, the whole country. That was a truly marvelous experience.

So we went back to our hotel and watched the ceremony on the TV in our room. After a few hours, we got in a van, and since the city was all blocked off, we couldn't drive up to the place where we were supposed to be dropped off. So we walked and got separated. Bobby [Weir] had a big hassle trying to get in.

Had you changed into your tuxedos by this point?
Yeah, absolutely. Tuxes and formal shoes — the brand-new ones that really hurt. It was black tie, so I just went and did my black tie thing. I remember Billy saying, "I'm gonna wear a black T-shirt, because I don't want to sweat up my formal shirt."

It sounds like a wedding band.
It almost felt like that [laughs]. So we eventually played the show and it was interesting because again, the schedule was very tight and in the middle of "Eyes of the World," my wife shows me a note that says, "VP arriving early." The deal was that we would play and then he would arrive and speak and do his dance with his wife. So he came in and did his speech and sort of split our set up.

We were honored to be able to shake the president's hand after the show. My son [Brian, an Obama volunteer] got to come along too. Obama shook Mickey [Hart]'s hand and said, "Hi, thanks for being here." Shook my hand and said, "Thanks for being here." And I'm thinking about saying, "And you remember my son Brian…" and he just walked over to Brian and said, "And here's Brian, the guy who started it all," and gave him a hug. My 19-year-old son. I gotta tell ya, I think that's the high point of my life.

Did Obama comment on your set?
No, and we didn't ask! We knew he hadn't heard it. We opened with "Dancing in the Street," then "Uncle John's Band," "Eyes of the World," "The Wheel," "Touch of Grey," "Throwing Stones" and "Box of Rain." It's interesting to me how resonant the lyrics are of those songs 40 years later. They could have been written yesterday. We wanted to play the songs and get the groove going so people could dance around if they wanted to. Although I didn't see too many people dancing while we were playing.

How did the crowd react?
I don't think a lot of 'em knew who we were. There was a feeling of, "Who are these old guys, anyway?" But maybe that was just my paranoia.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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