Phil Lesh opened his April 15th concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – the second of two shows there – with a romp through memoir, rendered in the present tense, facing forward. Leading the third version of his improvising-medicine show Phil Lesh and Friends in as many weeks, the ex-Grateful Dead bassist sang “Truckin’,” his old band’s acute, churning summation of road life, with guitarists Jackie Greene and Warren Haynes in high shimmering-water harmonies. Lesh also wore a bright smile as the three hung on to the word “long” in that marvelling chorus: “Lately it occurs to me/What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
At 74, Lesh has a right to look back in honor: fifteen years of leading various editions of the Friends on top of three decades in the Dead. But that “Truckin'” – with Lesh threading the guitars with assured low-end countermelodies – was wonder in motion: the start of a winding, dynamic night, in the opening innings of a new experiment in residency. On April 2nd, Lesh played the first of eight shows at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, inaugurating a marathon series of gigs there through the end of this year, while the BAM concerts were his first-ever at that venue.
“There was no way we could have played anything in the Dead in every way possible,” Lesh told me during our recent Rolling Stone interview. Tonight, he found more roads yet untaken, inside songs he’s performed all his life. And Lesh is not done looking. He plays three more shows this weekend at Brooklyn Bowl, with yet another lineup.
The Dead toured for a living and their lives, so it should be no surprise that many of the best songs they wrote and covered were about moving and momentum – departure, passing through and the constant, always distant allure of arrival. At BAM, Lesh and his Friends – Haynes, Greene, drummer Joe Russo and keyboard player John Medeski – followed “Truckin'” with the Dead’s lifetime of pilgrim stories, at a variety of urgencies: “Passenger,” “Viola Lee Blues,” I Know You Rider,” the traditional wanderer’s anthem, “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.”
The segues were sly in narrative as well as smooth. Jerry Garcia’s poker-table warning “Deal,” from 1972’s Garcia, bled into the high stakes and crawling menace of Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” In the second set, the band slid out of Van Morrison’s reach for nirvana, “Into the Mystic,” to the earthy renewal of “Uncle John’s Band,” then back up to the higher planes in “Terrapin Station.”
The Living Dead
I saw one of the Port Chester shows as well, on April 11th, with a Friends that had Marco Benevento on the ivories, Lesh’s Furthur guitarist John Kadlecik channeling Garcia instead of Haynes and a saxophonist, Bill Evans. It was fascinating to hear, over both shows, the differences Lesh encourages in his various Friends and how he binds those instrumental voices in a cooperative exploration.
On the 11th, the first set started with J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” at the Eric Clapton clip; Benevento pressed and colored the drive and changes with a rock-gospel lift at his keyboards. At BAM, Medeski was more angular and jolting. In “The Other One,” he threw confrontational accents on clavinet, like an angry Stevie Wonder. Over a long, jamming resolution into the Traffic song, Medeski played free, seething raptures at the piano, closer to Cecil Taylor than Keith Godchaux, then swung into a roadhouse stomp in the chorus.
Lesh appeared to thoroughly enjoy himself in both settings, taking huge helpings of lead vocal. After spending much of our interview talking about the few songs he wrote for the Dead, it was a treat to hear him sing two of them, “Pride of Cucamonga” and “Unbroken Chain,” in Port Chester, the former split in two with a bridge from Blues for Allah. It was instructive, as well, to see Lesh throw the leadership around the stage, watching as well as cueing changes and tunes. He grinned as Russo – a strong, fluid anchor at both shows – hit the chopped-time turn in “Viola Lee Blues” at BAM; visibly relished Haynes’ soloing blend of Louisiana levee and Fillmore dance party in the open spaces of “Uncle John’s Band”; and smiled fondly in Port Chester as Kadlecik evoked Garcia’s original vocal in “Stella Blue” with tender care and a disciple’s poise.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Lesh admitted the New York run was a way of addressing age and the grind of the road after nearly 50 years: getting the audience to come to him. He also said this: “I am not a guy who can dial down. I would fade away into nothingness if I couldn’t play.”
Lesh put it another way at BAM, at the end of that “Truckin’,” in those last lines about getting home and mending bones, all to “get back truckin’ on.” He, Greene and Haynes also held that final word the way they sang “long” – like there’s no end in sight.