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Phil Lesh & Friends - Part 2: Till the Morning Comes

(18 May 2008: The Warfield Theatre — San Francisco, CA)

Part 2: Till the Morning Comes

No one’s quite sure what will happen on Saturday. Will the band continue with albums in chronological order? That would seem to require a three-set show with 1971’s “Skull and Roses” live album (that was released with only the band’s name as moniker) and 1972’s Europe ’72 live album on tap. “Skull and Roses” it is as the band opens with the rousing “Bertha”. Whereas Live/Dead captured the band at the height of their psychedelic ‘60s phase, “Skull and Roses” showcased the band moving into the melodic, Americana song-oriented vibe hinted at on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.


The collection of songs on the album provides for another high-energy set of crowd pleasers. The Saturday night crowd is ready to party and the band delivers big time. Standouts include “Big Railroad Blues”, “Playin’ in the Band”, an extremely rare “Me and Bobby McGee” (with Greene shining again on vocals), and a smoking run through Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.


The second set is a curveball as the band opts for the 1981 live album Dead Set, appropriate perhaps since part of it was recorded at the Warfield. The energy, however, is uneven, though it’s primarily the fault of the album dictated set list. Overall, it’s the inferior set of the run. But Lesh and company step up when given the chance, with the electrifying trio of “Passenger”, “Feel Like a Stranger”, and “Franklin’s Tower”, a scintillating sequence on par with anything else played during the week.


Then comes another surprise—rather than try to race through the album’s five remaining tracks, a third set will be required to get through “drums”, “space”, “Fire on the Mountain”, “Greatest Story Ever Told”, and “Brokedown Palace”. Local guitarist Henry Kaiser joins in on guitar for the space section which builds into a particularly sublime “Fire”. “Greatest Story” is another rare treat, while the “Brokedown” encore emphasizes again the closing of the venue.


By Sunday rumors have spread that the band will wind up the evening by playing 1977’s Terrapin Station with a full orchestra, and that the show will go deep into the night. The former turns out to be a red herring as Phil announces that the band won’t be playing any full albums tonight. But he advises the crowd to get ready for a long night.


The show kicks off around 9 pm and doesn’t end until over six-and-a-half hours later in one of the great epic performances of recent memory. The first set is primarily just Lesh, Weir, and drummer Molo performing as a trio. Weir lacks the lead guitar skills that usually make a trio gel, but his ever inventive rhythm playing, coupled with Lesh’s lead bass skills, make for an interesting set. The energy wanes at times, but it’s a noble experiment in seeking new ground. In between sets, Greene and Campbell perform as an acoustic duo and at the next set break it’s Greene and the Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm, which means that there was constant music coming from the stage all night.


The regular lineup returns for set two, which kicks off with a raging “Shakedown Street” that gets the entire crowd bouncing. The chemistry in the band is fizzing, from Lesh’s groovy low-end to smoking guitar interplay to the ultra-psychedelic keys provided by Mollitz. Other highlights include a sizzling “Althea” and a torrid run through Greene’s own “Mexican Girl”. A monster jam on “Sugaree” (with Mark Karan back on guitar) closes the set in style, setting the stage for the grand finale.


Large nets full of balloons idle in the rafters for a New Year’s Eve-style balloon drop, which occurs as the band launches into the final set around 2 am with a huge rendition of “Sugar Magnolia”. While most Deadheads don’t like to hear repeats in a run, no one’s complaining about this barnburner receiving another treatment as New Year’s Eve is delivered in May. The outro jam is hot with Campbell and Mollitz taking extended solos while Lesh keeps pumping up the groove for a monumental “Sunshine Daydream” jam to end the song.


Lesh then leads the band into his signature classic, “Unbroken Chain”, and delivers a rendition for the ages. The Dead recorded the song in 1973, but inexplicably didn’t play it live until it received a handful of plays in 1995. But it’s only been since 1999 that the song has grown into one of the great classics of rock ‘n’ roll. The “listening for the secret, searching for the sound” line encompasses the Dead’s entire ethos as the song moves from delicately soulful and introspective verses into a mega-jam that ranks with the Dead’s best material. It’s a song that has grown more and more epic as the years slide by.


Here, the jam receives an extra deep treatment with Campbell and Mollitz again offering extended solos that take the listener deep into the heart of the mystical quest for transcendence, while Lesh lays down his best bass runs. When the jam seems like it’s finally about to end, Lesh signals everyone back into it for yet another pass before resolving to the blissful coda. Even that section receives an extended treatment though, as Lesh is clearly determined to make this set a historic one.


Lesh then dials in the mystical “Mountains of the Moon” (again, a repeat from Wednesday), which is the perfect slow song after two such epic jams. The ethereal tune gives everyone a chance to catch a breath while also re-conjuring the ‘60s psychedelia the Dead reveled in. As the outro plays, Lesh starts pumping up the bass and Molo follows by upping the tempo. The band builds the jam slowly but surely until it explodes into the “Inspiration” outro section of “Terrapin Station”; a turbo-charged jam that Lesh first re-arranged in 2001.


They slow for just a second as Lesh finally steers the band into the “I Know You Rider” they’ve been teasing all week. The bouncing bass and sweet guitar melodies have the entire crowd shaking their bones yet again. It’s one of those rare sets that starts off at the peak of the mountain top and just keeps going higher; pure bliss from start to finish. Lesh once again keeps the jam going and going, as Campbell and Greene trade smoking guitar licks. The set contains only five songs, but each is at least 10-15 minutes long with extended jams from what seems like the best improvisational rock outfit going. The band encores with “Truckin’”, a nod to the Dead’s road warrior ethic that always looks toward the next show, before a brief return to the gospel-like “We Bid You Goodnight” ends the evening in ceremonial style.


To witness the elder statesman of the entire jamband scene end a week like this with a set like this is nothing short of inspirational. It’s almost as if Lesh is determined to keep showing both Garcia and the entire next generation of jam rockers what can be possible if you take care of yourself. Many say rock is a young man’s game, but Lesh proves that youth is in the soul, not the calendar. As in the posters that were given out each night to make a matching five-piece collage, Garcia and Graham were surely smiling down from heaven at what transpired here.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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29 Jun 2008
Over five nights, the former Grateful Dead bassist played eight of the Dead’s albums in full, in order, culminating with a final, six-and-a-half hour show that was a fitting finale to San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre, which is closing for renovations and will re-open under new management.
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