Phil Lesh & Friends | Salt Shed | 3/12
Phil Lesh doesn’t really tour these days, making it seem like a minor miracle that he’s played three shows in Chicago in the past eight months. While the rest of the living Dead are preparing to embark on a final stadium tour with John Mayer and others as Dead & Co. this summer, Phil continues to curate the preservation of his music in his own way, on a smaller scale but with a bigger band. The institution of Phil & Friends has boasted a revolving cast since its inception in the late ‘90s, and especially lately, with a host of all-stars taking turns featuring at various weekend runs. For the group’s first run of the year, last month in Denver, it boasted Rick Mitarotonda of Goose as de facto frontperson (not for the first time!); his meteoric rise continues? For the moment (I have not yet seen this man perform), color me relieved that we instead got Warren Haynes in Chicago.
In the early part of this century the ubiquity of Warren Haynes on the festival/jamband circuit was a running joke. I thought I was going to be seeing him five times a year with some band or other so I never made it a priority to catch him. How did 14 years flash by since I’d last seen him onstage? He was a crucial bridge between jamband generations, and now that he’s an elder statesman I’m starting to feel like he never quite got his due. Maybe it’s his inability to assert himself as a songwriter, maybe it’s his overly-earnest delivery clashing with the pervading goofiness of the scene. Maybe he just never found the perfect group of people to form an original musical bond with. Regardless, he’s earned his credentials as an interpreter of the Dead canon, having served almost as much time in Phil’s Friends over the years as longstanding drummer John Molo.
These two made up the core of the band when I first saw Phil live back in ’02 and ’03. In those days my appreciation for the Dead was…let’s just say I’d come a long way from visceral hatred of them and their followers! At the same time I’d barely opened the door. Then Phil & Friends played Summerfest in June of ’02. I’d just seen them at Bonnaroo five days earlier, a performance that didn’t compel me to rush out and try again, but my friend John had an extra ticket and talked me into it. The Bonnaroo set had been in broad daylight; it had the feel of old guys playing old songs everybody knew, which was lovely. The Summerfest show on the other hand was five serious musicians intending to take us and themselves on a journey, which they did. It’s been rare over the years that any post-Dead project I’ve seen has hit such musical heights as that show.
Twenty years on, Phil remains a guiding light, though perhaps no longer the driving musical force in his live bands, a diminished role I presume he happily accepts. His son Grahame has been his mainstay guitarist for some time, playing traditional jamband-toned rhythms and leads, not as yet a particularly assertive player (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Nor was Jason Crosby, a versatile sideman on the jamband scene since the late ‘90s who’s been Phil’s keyboard player so far this year. It was the horn players who stole this show.
This is a horn section that should have its own name by now. Calling them the TAB horns is diminishing to the musical force they’ve become. When I think about the snide commentary regarding Trey’s horn players I used to read on the internet, all the Phish hipsters dismissing them as amateurs, I imagine trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick laughing all the way to the bank lo these past 22 years. When she first started singing lead every once in a while on a novelty cover tune with TAB it was such a joy, but just a lark; back then, TAB too was a serious musical force taking us on journeys. Sunday at the Salt Shed I couldn’t help wondering if Hartswick (and/or trombonist Natalie Cressman and saxophonist James Casey) finds TAB terminally boring these days.
All these years I’ve looked at Hartswick as a crucial non-hippie force in the Phish cinematic universe (not that I have any personal knowledge to base this view on), so watching her sing Dead songs messed with my head a little at first. Then again, between this horn trio and Haynes, having this many capable singers involved in a Dead tribute band was unprecedented in my experience. This was a major hangup for me in approaching the Dead to begin with and to be completely honest it still dogs me sometimes. Yet here was a band able to give the rich harmonies inherent in a lot of Dead songs a fresh and proper treatment, very much in keeping with what I’ve understood Phil’s intentions to be ever since he began assembling his various Friends groups.
It wasn’t just Hartswick’s singing, which has only gotten better and better over the years. It was the whole section’s versatility, their ability to switch fluidly between vocals and horns, and even to drive improv in subtle moments as well as ecstatic peaks. At times I was distinctly reminded of the days when TAB used to get weird (even though neither Cressman nor Casey were involved back then). Not to discount Haynes or anybody else; there were some good, guitar-based, respectably Deadish jams throughout the night. It did seem as though Phil and/or Warren were experiencing some equipment difficulties in the first half, which never fully got into much of a flow as a result, but looking back at the setlist, almost every song stuck out as a highlight, with the fifteen-minute set-closing “Sugaree” being probably the biggest surprise. Many times throughout the show I was struck by Molo’s sly manipulation of the rhythm during transitions, and how few drummers in the rock field are truly adept at this, most of them (especially in the jamband realm) always looking to their guitarists for direction. The string players all seemed mostly content to let Molo and the horns control the dynamics, and although Hartswick and Cressman only took cursory solos, Casey took over the whole proceedings multiple times to no one’s dismay.
For his part, Lesh seemed much more in the groove in set II, and the jams benefited; it wasn’t about the bombs, more the unpredictable melodic twists and turns he’s also known for, on display particularly inside “Mountains Of The Moon” and “Eyes Of The World”. While everybody else might be constrained by whatever key or meter the song is in, Phil was still able to find his way around and through without losing the thread or bumping against anybody during some very inspired albeit relatively brief stretches of improv. Nothing on this night went as deep as a Deadhead might crave, nor were there guitar histrionics the likes of which Warren has been known to conjure at times. It might’ve been a complete return to that type of laid-back old-geezer performance I’d seen at Bonnaroo two decades ago if it hadn’t been for the horns, but it’s really hard to say. That sort of thing would be a lot more my bag today than it was in 2002, and this band of old and not-so-old musicians seemed a lot more adventurous as a group on this particular night than I would’ve guessed.
It’s not like this was a road-tested, tight band that’s liable to blow minds the old-fashioned way. Still, whereas the Sacred Rose (http://www.you-phoria.com/Blog/2022/September/sacred-rose-festival) show last year—“Philco” as it was affectionately called—seemed fairly thrown-together, the band that played Sunday night didn’t sound like disparate elements making the best of it. They can’t have had THAT much rehearsal time, yet they played like a seasoned ensemble for the most part, AND the jams were bigger and more plentiful. It was honestly refreshing not having a guitar player hogging the spotlight, allowing the songs to breathe in the loose interplay between everyone. Anybody who’s into this type of music has to either adjust their expectations as they age or just leave it to the younger folks and say fare thee well. Against all odds, I couldn’t be more grateful that Phil hasn’t given up the ghost quite yet.