Grateful Dead co-founders Phil Lesh and Bob Weir began a three-city, six-show run, dubbed the Bobby and Phil Tour, with a pair of sold-out gigs at Radio City Music Hall on Friday and Saturday. In classic Dead fashion, the concerts moved between magical jams and charming discombobulation, never losing their sense of real-time fun. During their debut as a “duo,” Lesh and Weir were augmented on and off by percussionist Wally Ingram and, for Saturday’s thrilling, improv-packed second set, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. But even with the guests, the nights showcased a profound musical intimacy and sense of adventure not often associated with the Dead’s groove-happy, arena-filling incarnations, the opposite in many ways of Dead & Co., the stadium-touring sextet featuring Weir, the Dead’s drummers and blues-rock shredder John Mayer.
Weir and Lesh eased into 1970’s “Uncle John’s Band” to begin the first of the two nights. The classic-rock staple both provided campfire comfort and reminded listeners of Lesh and Weir’s equal strangeness on their chosen instruments. Where Jerry Garcia’s darting guitar leads provided the Dead with technicolor sunshine, Lesh – a former avant-garde composer – played bass like a second lead guitarist, and an ornery one at that, adding unpredictable and frequently obtuse counterpoint. Learning to play guitar in the Dead as a teenager, Weir developed a not-quite-lead/not-quite-rhythm palette filled with spiky, staccato movements designed to cut through the crowded sound of Garcia, Lesh, the band’s rumbling drummers, a revolving cast of keyboardists and arenas full of Deadheads.
Since Garcia’s 1995 death, members of the Dead have played together and apart with a seemingly endless succession of substitutes. But at Radio City, without a lead player for three of the four sets, Lesh and Weir made a music that was so uncharacteristically spare that it bordered on spectral. Minus a faux-Jerry, the music was akin to uncut Grateful Dead, uncluttered by outside voices, leaving musicians and listeners alike free to grapple with the resultant emptiness. It was a musical concept that (usually) retained its elegance – and left Deadhead-packed audiences aglow – even when the music itself seemed on the verge of coming undone.
“It occurs to me that we never got around to rehearsing the end to that one,” Weir observed after “Operator,” the second song of the first night. “Or,” he noted after a healthy pause, “a lot of other stuff.”
Less opening-night bug than a built-in feature of these musicians’ long-running and highly marketable creative platform, the sloppiness led to more than a few misfires (like when Weir swallowed the sure-to-get-a-cheer “just like New York City” lyric in “Ramble On Rose”) and occasional verbal disagreements about where the song’s chords or tempo or beat should be. But for sympathetic Dead freaks, the musicians’ foibles are better heard as personality quirks than as mistakes. And at Radio City, there was personality to spare.
Likely due to the stripped-down format, the two musicians did more talking than usual, the 77-year-old bassist and 70-year-old guitarist sometimes endearingly interrupting one another’s jokes, a dynamic that flowed naturally into the music, a continuation of a half-century-long dialogue. “Every one of these tunes means a little something different to everyone here including us,” Weir said earnestly.
“So we’re gonna try to do as many versions [as possible] of each individual tune at the same time,” Lesh added.
It was an apt description of the arrangements, which often diverged during verses and choruses but resolved ineffably into agreement (or, at least friendly negotiation) the instant that improvisation became the primary task at hand. The two found new ways to make the jams move, locking into hypnotic flows that had no need for a designated soloist, as on a nearly 13-minute version of “Mountains of the Moon,” a rich piece of proto–freak folk from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa that was revived by Lesh. On Saturday, “Cassidy” found an unexpected and weaving path into “Touch of Grey,” the band’s only Top 10 hit, and back. (The performance was also the night’s unacknowledged tribute to “Cassidy” lyricist and longtime Weir collaborator John Perry Barlow, the complicated Internet pioneer who died last month.) Lesh and Weir found new mojo in old songs, too, uncovering quiet vocal harmonies (“Row Jimmy”) and back-porch reinventions (as on Garcia and Robert Hunter’s latter-day “Lazy River Road,” with Weir on acoustic guitar).
Without the safety net of being to slip into a good choogle when the jamming got rough, a sense of close listening prevailed over the two nights. Percussionist Ingram, tasked with making rhythmic sense of two of the world’s weirdest rhythm players, played a hero’s role in finding a clarifying, swinging and flexible middle path – and nearly totally tasteful, too, give or take the occasional lite-rock wind-chime flourish. An associate of guitarist David Lindley, as well as occasional Dead collaborator Steve Kimock, Ingram also allowed Weir and Lesh to move in rare directions. Weir delivered a chilling version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” with its hellish prophecies of “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” receiving nearly subliminal support from Lesh and Ingram that would be unthinkable in most versions of the Grateful Dead proper. And when they shifted into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” the Dead’s most archetypal boogie number, featuring a built-in audience clap-along, the three continued to spill giddily in and out of the bedrock Bo Diddley groove, no autopilot permitted.
Rumors of an appearance by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio circulated online in the week leading up to the shows, but his presence was only confirmed as Radio City’s curtains parted for Saturday’s second set and the duo-turned-trio-turned-quartet struck into Weir’s “Playing in the Band,” an uncharacteristic moment of visual drama. Receiving no introduction, Anastasio was, even more than Ingram, an immediately stabilizing force, projecting confident and classic-sounding reads of how nearly every song should proceed, and making the music sound far closer to its Garcia-guided roots. With Ingram’s nimble, floating percussion, the small ensemble moved into extended moments of graceful and high-speed invention that recalled the band’s single-drummer period during the early 1970s, an era Lesh has often called his favorite. During the first part of the set especially, nearly each jam dug deeper until the band seemed to arrive at some moment of absolute newness.
Anastasio – who attended Dead shows and covered Dead tunes as a teenager and has been joining ex-Dead members since the late Nineties – occupied Garcia’s space in the harmonies and took the lead on “Eyes of the World.” Most often, though, he operated as a big-eared ally to Lesh and Weir. The Phish guitarist found appropriately moody spaces in the eternal jam portal “Dark Star” and drove the band to its biggest peak of the weekend during “St. Stephen,” a dense and rhythmically darting weave that continued to build and twist until coming to an unexpected and logical full stop (and a slightly lurching path back to the song). Running hard against their midnight curfew, the quartet rushed through a last jam sequence before a singalong “Ripple” encore dropped its last verse in order to land at 11:59, and the one-time quartet’s brief 102-minute existence disappeared back into jam lovers’ dreams.
The site of some the Dead’s most famous shows, filmed in 1980 and shown on public television for decades, Radio City was at least figuratively built for Deadheads. When the venue opened in the Thirties, mastermind Roxy Rothafel intended to release nitrous oxide into the ventilation system to induce euphoria among audiences. Lawyers talked him out of it. Instead, according to architectural historian Rem Koolhaas, the impresario settled on canned ozone to achieve the desired levity. Recognizing these as special shows even for the perpetually touring Lesh and Weir, Deadheads came well prepared to provide their own euphoria; and for those who didn’t, the local nitrous cartel could be found afterwards steps from the venue’s exits and for three surrounding blocks, an ugly fixture on Manhattan’s music scene that has only gotten worse since it came to light in 2010.
With four more shows planned, the duo (or trio) might tighten up before they get to Boston and Chicago, or they might not. They will perhaps be joined by other musicians, or they won’t. They will definitely jam and make music exponentially less rehearsed than anything else featured at these same venues during this concert season, or perhaps the entire year. Deadheads will feel feels and thrill to the thrills. And – not always a given with Dead music – curious civilians might just do the same.
Uncle John’s Band
Ramble On Rose
Friend of the Devil
Bird Song >
Lost Sailor >
Saint of Circumstance
Me and My Uncle
Mountains of the Moon >
Let It Grow >
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Not Fade Away
Box of Rain
New Speedway Boogie
West LA Fadeaway
Lazy River Road
Deep Elem Blues
Touch of Grey >
Set 2 (with Trey Anastasio on guitar and vocals):
Playing in the Band
Dark Star (verse 1) >
Eyes of the World >
Dark Star (verse 2) >
Saint Stephen >
Viola Lee Blues >
Standing on the Moon >
Viola Lee Blues