Part One: Brokedown Palace (May 13, 14 and 16)
It was being framed as the end of an era. San Francisco’s venerable Warfield Theater would be temporarily closing for renovations and re-opening under new management. The lease of Live Nation, the company that took over Bill Graham Presents (BGP) after the iconic concert promoter died in a 1991 helicopter crash, had run out. The Warfield was now going to be run by Goldenvoice, a division of the even bigger corporate behemoth AEG Live.
Word in the preceding weeks was that the Warfield would never be the same, not just because of the renovations (like moving the soundboard downstairs from the balcony), but because many of the longtime BGP employees who kept the Warfield’s vibe intact were going to be let go. But leave it to the BGP folks to go out with a bang by scheduling legendary Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh for five nights to close it out.
Still truckin’, 68-year-old Lesh has been at the height of his powers this past decade. The liver transplant he received at the end of 1998 seems to have re-invigorated Lesh beyond anything modern medicine could have imagined. And since 1999 he’s played with a veritable who’s who of next generation jam rockers with a mutually energizing effect.
When guitarist and de facto bandleader Jerry Garcia died in 1995, it was hard to imagine much life left in the Dead’s music. But Lesh has achieved what was once unthinkable—most of the Phil & Friends shows from this decade have been vastly superior to the majority of Dead shows from the ‘90s, a time when Garcia’s drug habit and debilitating health often dragged the band into stale and uninspired performances. Lesh has busted out old songs and endeavored to keep things fresh by constantly re-interpreting those songs with a rotating lineup of friends.
The Warfield had played host to many storied moments in Grateful Dead history and this run was poised for more of the same. Rumors of special guests and surprises abound as the shows approach, including a late arriving message on the Philzone.org message board that advises, “don’t miss the first night.” It’s no surprise then when Tuesday nights show sells out that day to complete a sold out run.
Upon entering the Warfield, guests are immediately greeted with artfully lit and decorated cutouts of the skeleton characters that have been part of the Dead’s vibe for decades. The aura of something special is in the air, but the crowd doesn’t seem particularly primed when the lights go down. It’s only the first night, though, and there’s a long week ahead, so pacing figures to be key. But when the band opens with “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”, the first song on the Dead’s eponymous 1967 debut album, smiles abound. The upbeat tune has been a crowd pleaser ever since Lesh brought it back in 2000 covered in three decades worth of mothballs. This is followed by a raucous romp through “Beat it on Down the Line”, which just so happens to be the second song on that debut album.
Lead guitarist Larry Campbell, formerly of Bob Dylan’s band, takes the lead vocal on the high-energy tune that features an unusually extended jam. Such a treatment this early in a show is generally a sign that the band is primed for a big night. The next tune features youthful guitarist Jackie Greene (at 26, he’s 42 years younger than his band leader) singing on a re-arrangement of the Sonny Boy Williamson blues classic “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, the third song on that debut album. Are Lesh and friends really going to the play the 1967 classic in its entirety?
When the band launches into “Cold, Rain and Snow”, track four on the album, the concept is confirmed and a 13-pointed lightning bolt (one of the Dead’s classic logos) shoots through the Warfield crowd, which basks in the sudden knowledge that this show will be one for the ages. After a hot run through “Sitting on Top of the World”, the ante is upped as the band launches into the ultra-rare “Cream Puff War” with none other than Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir stepping on stage to sing. A shower of confetti and two go-go girls accompany Weir’s entrance; the latter pulled straight from the 1960s, an Austin Powers film, or possibly the strip club next door. Three more ‘60s-styled gals boogie in each of the balcony’s side loges as the Warfield teleports back to 1967 for a spectacular vibe that sends the crowd into an ecstatic delirium. Keyboardist Steve Mollitz (of Particle) delivers the seminal psychedelic sound of the Hammond B-3 organ that truly takes the listener back. Cognitive dissonance never tasted so sweet.
Weir sticks around for the rest of the set which features a monster jam on album/set closer “Viola Lee Blues”, the only song on the album—according to Lesh’s 2005 autobiography—that actually sounded like the Dead did in 1967. The crowd is utterly wowed. Many veteran rock acts are content to keep re-hashing the same old versions of the same old songs as long as nostalgic fans will pay to see them painstakingly recreated. But here’s the 68-year-old Lesh pushing the boundaries once again, as he always has, delivering a stunning set and announcing that this run was going to be a historic one indeed.
Weir is back for set two as the band launches into “Cryptical Envelopment”, which means they are about to play the Dead’s second album, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun. The rare “New Potato Caboose” keeps the ‘60s flashback flowing, and the even rarer “Born Cross-Eyed” follows, with Weir and Lesh reveling in the nostalgia. The smoking hot grooves of “Alligator” and “Caution” close the set, with the band receiving a rousing ovation. It sure doesn’t feel like Tuesday night anymore.
There’s no Weir on night two, but when the band opens with a short but sweet “St. Stephen”, it’s a signal that the Dead’s third album, 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, is now in play. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Doin’ that Rag” showcase the bluesy base from which the Dead grew, while “Mountains of the Moon” distills ambient and mystical psychedelia into the mix. Classic cuts “China Cat Sunflower” and “Cosmic Charlie” get the house really grooving, while long-buried offbeat rarities “Rosemary” and “What’s Become of the Baby” are also unearthed; both feature an angel singing hypnotically from the balcony wings (the angel turns out to be guitarist Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams).
But what’s next? Will it be 1969’s Live/Dead, or will they stick to studio albums? After a short jam, the instantly recognizable opening notes of “Dark Star” announce that it will be Live/Dead, much to the delight of the crowd. Ratdog/Other Ones guitarist Mark Karan joins the band for the entire set, which features an epic 45-minute trip through “Dark Star” before the evening’s second rendition of “St. Stephen”. But whereas the show opener was album style, this one is fully rocking. “The Eleven” and “Turn on Your Lovelight” keep the energy cranked and it’s another triumph of the old school for such ‘60s jams to continue to sound so fresh.
After a needed day of rest, the run continues on Friday with what shapes up as another classic. It’s here that a fan breaks out the shofar—a Jewish ram’s horn that was blown in biblical times to announce new moons and holidays—for the first time. This celebration certainly seems to qualify, particularly with this third show set to feature the Dead’s 1970 classics, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, considered by many to be the band’s best albums.
“Uncle John’s Band” opens the show, confirming that Workingman’s Dead is in effect. Guitarist David Nelson, a Garcia cohort since the ‘60s, joins the band for the rest of the show, freeing Larry Campbell to add some sweet pedal steel guitar on “Dire Wolf”. Greene demonstrates his future star power as he leads the way on a tremendous rendition of “New Speedway Boogie”. The song rocks on a primal level and when the jam returns to the final chorus, Greene is screaming out “this darkness got to give” with impassioned soul. The song segues perfectly into the worker’s lament of “Cumberland Blues”. The music, it seems, is actually playing the band now as the entire ensemble delves into a smoking, bluegrassy jam that keeps pushing the energy higher.
“Easy Wind” presents a rarity from the Dead’s original keyboardist, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Greene can’t quite muster the low-down bluesy authenticity that Pigpen brought to the song, but it’s a tall task. The band gives it a solid go though, before “Casey Jones” wraps up the set in rousing fashion. It’s a strong set, but one gets the sense that the best is still to come with American Beauty.
“Box of Rain” is a stupendous opener, with Campbell’s pedal steel re-creating an extra layer of musical magic. Usually played as an encore, the song soars in the set-opening slot, a location that gives it a rare chance to be used as a jam vehicle. Lesh seizes the opportunity for a tasty if brief jam, with Campbell switching to fiddle and adding another flavor. He remains on fiddle as the band moves into “Friend of the Devil”, with Nelson on vocals. The band is really jelling now as Lesh steps in to sing the last verse before directing a stellar jam that takes off into “I Know You Rider” territory. Lesh’s role as sonic alchemist is at a peak as his dynamic low end inspires superb ensemble playing.
The energy continues to rise as the band segues into beloved rocker “Sugar Magnolia”, with Greene stepping up on lead vocal. Lesh and Molo keep the groove strong while Campbell’s lead guitar soars as the entire theater cuts loose. The very rare “Operator” follows, with Lesh filling in for Pigpen’s vocals this time. Lesh’s voice sparkles with soul, enabling the song to retain its delightfully bluesy swing. Garcia classic “Candyman” follows, while the rare and beloved “Ripple” has the crowd singing along in an almost gospel-like delight. Campbell moves over to mandolin, demonstrating yet more skills. “Brokedown Palace”, another classic ballad, follows and seems particularly appropriate with the Warfield about to shut down.
The surprise treat of the evening comes as the band takes “Till the Morning Comes”, an all but forgotten tune that the Dead played only a handful of times, and re-arranges it into an almost Shania Twain-style rocking show-stopper with Teresa Williams returning for soaring vocals, backed by harmonies from Lesh and Campbell. The band transforms the tune into a raging set closer, with Campbell tearing it up on lead guitar and Lesh propelling the groove higher and higher.
The band saves the album’s last two songs for the encore. “Attics of My Life”, another classic Garcia ballad, is also given a new arrangement. Lesh, Williams, and company sing the song near a cappella, with just one sparse guitar behind majestic harmonies that conjure a downright religious vibe. The band then revs back up again for a rousing “Truckin’” that rocks the house and concludes yet another monumental evening.
No one’s quite sure what will happen on Saturday. Will the band continue with albums in chronological order?
Check back tomorrow as PopMatters’ Greg Schwartz continues his coverage of Phil Lesh’s mammoth five-night run at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre.