Photo: Jay Blakesberg (Courtesy of Sound Summit)

Phil Lesh and Bob Weir Come Together to Jam for Mt. Tam

Catching these counterculture pioneers in an intimate setting is a treat.
Jim James

Grateful Dead co-founders rock Sound Summit to benefit Mt. Tamalpais State Park

High atop Mount Tamalpais in Marin County sits a natural stone amphitheater with seating capacity for about 4,000 patrons. It’s an inherently epic location for a concert, featuring a majestic view of San Francisco on clear days from the center sections. Logistics are not ideal as far as access and parking though, hence the historic Mountain Theater is utilized only on a sparing basis. The annual Sound Summit fundraiser concert to benefit Mt. Tamalpais State Park has, therefore, become a rare and special occasion to enjoy the mountain’s natural beauty and spiritual vibes while also taking in some great music.

The 2017 Sound Summit became one of the hottest tickets of the year when it was announced that Grateful Dead co-founders Phil Lesh and Bob Weir would join together for a rare performance to headline the event as “Phil Lesh & Friends featuring Bob Weir”, with tickets selling out in a matter of minutes. The duo toured together for the better part of five decades, but have collaborated only a handful of times since the summer 2015 “Fare Thee Well” stadium performances in Santa Clara and Chicago that marked the last time the four living members of the Grateful Dead would play together in public.

Weir has appeared with Lesh several times this year at Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads club in San Rafael, with each performance selling out almost instantly to confirm that demand to see them together remains high. Catching these counterculture pioneers in an intimate setting is a treat, but there’s also something special about seeing them work their musical magic in a larger setting where the famous collective consciousness x-factor between the fans and the band can coalesce at a higher level. This show, therefore, stands as one of the Bay Area’s most anticipated events of 2017.

The Sound Summit schedules a full day of entertainment, and those who can arrive early can catch sets from Vetiver, the Stones Foxes, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Those traveling from distant points might not make it up the mountain until nearly 3:00 pm, still enabling them to catch a set from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James before the headlining performance from Lesh and Weir at 5:00 pm. Getting up and down the mountain is part of the long strange trip here, with most attendees ascending on school-bus shuttles due to the premium on scarce parking space. It seems a warm and sunny day, although part of the ride up the mountain goes through a cool patch of fog where the temperature drops by what feels like at least 10 degrees. That is only a short scare, however, for ascension to the Mountain Theater near the top of Mt. Tam finds warm sunshine once again.

Looking down at the stage from the top of the venue, fans can see that the theater actually sits above the clouds. Both fans and performers can look behind the stage to the south toward San Francisco and see the clouds below, lending a transcendent vibe of soaring high in the sky with winged friends from the aviary kingdom. The city itself is not visible on this day due to the thick cloud presence, but enjoying the warm sunshine and balmy mountain breezes above the clouds still feel like a blessing from the gods and/or whatever spirits inhabit Mt. Tamalpais (the Miwok Indian word for coastal mountain).

Playing solo acoustic to 4,000 people and making it work is no small task, but Jim James proves he’s up to the job with an hour-long set that captivates the audience as if he did have a full band behind him. A cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is a well-received gem, as is a majestic rendition of My Morning Jacket’s “I’m Amazed”. Both tunes ring out with a spiritual essence that fits the mountain vibe beautifully. First released in the wake of the Bush regime’s reign of political tyranny in 2008, “I’m Amazed” takes on an even deeper resonance here in the foul era of the Trump presidency. When James sings, “I’m amazed at the TV stations, I’m amazed what they want me to believe, After all, is said and done, where is the justice?”, he receives a huge cheer of solidarity from the mountain congregation.

Fans receive an extra treat when Weir sits in for a trio of tunes to close the set. The duo starts off with a gorgeous take on “The Maker”, a Daniel Lanois song popularized in these parts by the Jerry Garcia Band. They follow with Grateful Dead ballad “Brokedown Palace”, before capping the set with a timely rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 counterculture classic “For What It’s Worth”. Weir steals the moment with a zeitgeist twist on the lyrics when he sings, “There’s a man with bright orange-hair, bringing down a climate of fear, it’s time we stopped children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down…”

The main event starts about 45 minutes later with Lesh and Weir taking the stage in surprise fashion as just a duo to start the set with the incomparable “Dark Star”. The 77-year-old Lesh is in high spirits with a huge grin on his face, clearly delighted with the opportunity to play with his old friend in such a fabulous setting. The 69-year-old Weir seems to be aging like a fine wine himself and the dynamic duo give the psychedelic classic a refreshing workout before they’re joined by the trio of “Terrapin Allstars” billed as their band for the Sound Summit — Ross James and Alex Koford from the Terrapin Family Band on lead guitar and drums respectively, complemented by rising phenom Holly Bowling on keyboards.

The exploration into “Dark Star” continues as the quintet dials in their sound, before finding their way into Weir’s classic “Playin’ in the Band”. The high-energy rocker cranks the mountain dance party into high gear, including an extended jam where Bowling adds some sublime piano work and James dials in his wah-wah pedal for some melty riffs. Lesh keeps the set moving in an old-school direction when he steers the band into “Viola Lee Blues”, the only song on the Dead’s 1967 debut album that actually approximated the band’s sound according to Lesh in his 2005 biography, Searching for the Sound.The group digs into the big groove to keep the mountain dancing, before dialing things down a notch with “Mexicali Blues”. Weir remains in a vibrant form here on the classic cowboy tune, with Bowling adding some lively piano plunking.

Jim James then returns to help the band out on “Tennessee Jed”, which features a unique segue into “Down on the Bottom” (a song James co-wrote with Bob Dylan when producer T-Bone Burnett called him in a few years ago to work on newly discovered Dylan lyrics from 1967 that became the album Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes). The set moves along nicely with Lesh leading the band on his signature song “Box of Rain”, which sparkles here in the Mt. Tam sunshine.

When Lesh sings, “Walk into splintered sunlight, Inch your way through dead dreams to another land,” the song feels like a prophetic vision of this majestic moment. Such is the spiritual power of so many Grateful Dead songs, with lyricist Robert Hunter penning brilliant phrases that can and do take on multiple meanings within the varying context of time and space. The band gives the song a little more of a jam treatment than the Dead were known to do before executing a smooth segue into “Jack Straw”. Weir and Lesh are both in top form here, teaming up to drop sonic bombs while the younger players power the song higher with top-level performances. Bowling’s dynamic attack on the piano propels the surging momentum, while James tears into an incendiary wah-wah infused guitar solo for some of his best playing of the year.

“Bird Song” proves another dynamic choice considering the setting, with a surreal vibe as fans view Lesh and Weir playing above the Bay Area cloud line as if mutating into aviary form themselves to jam with the ghosts of Janis and Jerry. A big jam on “Not Fade Away” brings the set to a raucous conclusion, as the group digs deep into the Buddy Holly classic. The band builds the simplistic chord progression into a powerful groove that catalyzes the spinning dancers on the left edge of the crowd to move into a whirling ecstatic shamanic trance dance of sorts, conjuring visions of the big outdoor summer shows that used to be an annual ritual in the Grateful Dead’s touring days.

There’s an uplifting feeling here for everyone present it seems, leading some fans to long for the days when Lesh and Weir would play at the Berkeley Greek Theater on a near-annual summer basis. There’s a similar vibe here at the Sound Summit with the tiered seating high above the Bay Area, suggesting that the duo should consider keeping Mt. Tam and/or the Greek on their annual summer calendar. Terrapin Crossroads is a special venue that has developed into a unique community gathering place, but there’s something extra magical about witnessing Grateful Dead music in an elevated venue with thousands of friends (the Greek also features a view of San Francisco, from the East Bay’s Strawberry Canyon atop the UC-Berkeley campus.)

The logistical issue of the Mountain Theater presents itself at the end when the vast majority of those in attendance wait in a lengthy line for buses back down the mountain. But those inclined to enjoy the moment can find a woodsy spot to sit and enjoy the sunset while taking in Mt. Tam’s tranquil vibrations, as they chill while waiting for the line to diminish. The bus ride down the mountain turns into a wild funhouse-style ride, with the driver taking turns at what would seem a precarious speed. That launches riders into a state of hysterical laughter with just a touch of fear mixed in for a surreal conclusion to an inspiring day on Mt. Tam.