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Phil Lesh & Friends + The Levon Helm Band

(13 Jul 2008: Nikon at Jones Beach Theater — Wantagh, NY)

The Phil Lesh Quintet was active, more or less, from 2000 to 2003, after which it became clear that the wondrous collective of Lesh, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, John Molo, and Rob Barraco would be tabled while other commitments—the short reconstitution of the Dead, Haynes’ many focuses, and other career moves for Herring, Barraco and Molo—moved to the fore.


It has taken four years for erstwhile Grateful Dead anchor Lesh to assemble a lineup that might even hint at another consistently brilliant Friends group. The interim’s been spent—fruitfully, though ultimately not consistently—on a series of roving collectives that included, at various times, Phish’s Trey Anastasio, saxman Greg Osby, Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson, and guitar wizard John Scofield, not to mention such inspired singing choices as Ryan Adams and Joan Osborne. Every one of those 2004-2007 lineups had strengths—some more than others—but none ever plumbed the depths and reached a level of end-to-end, soul-nourishing prowess that the Quintet circa 2002 could promise on a nightly basis. That Herring/Haynes guitar tandem—part fleet-fingered jazz-rock, part hard-edged bluesadelica—and those mellifluous three-part harmonies between Lesh, Haynes, and Barraco, all atop drummer Molo’s preternatural ability to anchor the thing—well, those were the days.


Connecting with Lesh in a 2006 interview, he seemed to have made peace with the Quintet’s disbanding—and maybe the fact that he might not bottle that lightning again so readily—suggesting that the reason for the shape-shifting lineups was still to his ideal of “chance music.” That is, different combinations in search of different, once-in-a-lifetime musical ephemera and different shades of the magic.


Which is why the current collection of Friends is such an intriguing proposition—it’s the first ensemble since the Qunitet that Lesh has seen fit to stabilize and keep together. First and foremost, these Friends comprise a band intimately aware of its greatest strengths, including a command of the early ‘70s folk, country, and roots aspects of the Dead catalog as well as the R&B, the rollicking rock ‘n’ roll, and occasionally, the harder blues. Young Jackie Greene—check out his ace 2008 album Giving Up the Ghost for a fuller introduction—is one of Lesh’s great finds; a precocious songwriter, an able guitarist, harmonica player and keyboard stylist, and a protean singer, earnest and soulful. He found an early rapport, through mutual reverence for ancient roots and string band music, with Larry Campbell—the Bob Dylan band veteran, Nashville sessions legend, and master of things with strings, as it were—and the two have reached a comfort level where their shared interests have finally translated to live, musical conversation.


Where these Friends too-rarely tread is into space. They seem to approach the less-organized segments of “Dark Star”, “The Other One”, “Bird Song”, and other blank-canvas Dead warhorses with caution, maneuvering through and retreating to the “Deals”, “Cumberlands”, “Brown Eyed Women”, and “Uncle John’s Bands” that they acquit with so much verve and spark. It’s gotta be frustrating, at times, for Steve Molitz, the Particle keys man who plays a deft piano but isn’t given much room to expound on his Particleness in this context—his elastic synth leads and blippy effects are more color and shading than focal points.


But PLF’s tour closer at Nikon at Jones Beach Theater suggested a band growing more adventurous every day—and ready to start making its case as a jazz-rocking, spacey unit, too. Despite a sluggish Sunday evening crowd and a theater barely three-quarters sold, it was an expansive evening that was principally about spacey, bluesadelic rock ‘n’ roll—with almost all of the safety blankets cast aside.


After an even-keel first set—with an above-par “Mountains of the Moon” that changed tempos and wound its way into a danceable jam with Campbell’s cittern and a range of psychedelic flavors—the second-set was a go-for-broke charge, largely without breaks, that sputtered only occasionally and nailed some of its most ambitious goals.


It began modestly: A chunky jam that revealed itself as “China Cat Sunflower” squeezed its way into “Fire on the Mountain” and then arrived at the easy groove of “Sugaree”. I’m less awed by Greene’s treatment of the tune than some—his ostentatious emoting in its later choruses is a little shallow for what a haunting, nuanced singer he really is—but the band used it to refocus its energies after some of “Fire’s” inchoate transitions and bring the set back into focus. From “St. Stephen” on, the final 45 minutes of the night was a panorama of tempo switches, guitar tangles, keyboard freakouts, and red herring jams that moved with speed, agility, and intrigue. A groovy flight out of “The Eleven” was led by Molitz who revved up his synthesizer effects before cresting into a tender “Unbroken Chain”. Then, at last, came the late-inning “Dark Star”—sandwiching a zany, surprise break-out “Born Cross-Eyed”—that had been teased all night and saw some taut execution and snatches of drama, even in its most nebulous thickets.


“Dark Star” tucked itself into a galloping “I Know You Rider” tempo, the vocal harmonies soaring and Greene and Campbell meeting head-on at center stage to push each other’s guitar salvos while Molo whipcracked, charged, clattered, veered, darted, baited, and switched—a master class in tension-and-release. The “Rider” jam was so intense at times that the dancing legions included Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams, normally seen adding harmony vocals and the occasional lead as a de-facto Friend, but at this point standing off to the side while her husband shredded, pogoing as if unable to stop her legs from moving.


We felt it, too, along with the notion that this band has not only arrived, but is also excited about its own growth and the possibilities therein. At the end of the show—a gossamer “Attics of My Life” that yielded a shaky jam into a “Playin’” reprise—Lesh announced the group would be returning for a long residency at the Nokia Theater in New York this fall. It’ll be a laboratory, night after night, and wonderfully so.


Stopping here would mean leaving out one of the show’s big highlights. An opening set from the Levon Helm Band, the sixth and final of the Lesh/Helm co-bills this summer. Helm’s is such an inspiring story: Surviving cancer, reviving his career, and pulling together some of his best and oldest friends for an ongoing series of hootenanny-style concerts, the Midnight Rambles, at his Woodstock, New York, barn. Following the release of his Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer, Helm finally took a Ramble-style band on the road last year—stuffed fat with all-stars like Campbell (pulling double duty), Conan O’Brien guitar hero Jimmy Vivino, and a horn section anchored by the immense Howard Johnson, as well as Helm’s daughter Amy on vocals.


It’s a repertory band, through and through, with few changes to the setlists night after night, and structured with crowd-pleasing in mind, each night closing with a run of Band favorites like “Tears of Rage” (nailed by Vivino), “The Shape I’m In”, “Chest Fever”, and “The Weight”. But there’s no faulting any aspect of it, and Helm’s beaming expression—that happy-to-be-here/happy-to-be-anywhere smile that would take the sting out of anyone’s day—out-radiates even the most pristinely executed song.

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