Not long after its ferocious East Coast debut in the fall of 2000, the Haynes, Herring, Barraco and Molo line-up of Phil and Friends returned to the road for a series of West Coast dates, including a pair in Denver, a pair in Portland and a set of four in San Francisco in 2001. And immediately the band was even better than before. They took all the raw power and excitement of those initial shows and harnessed it in the way only a collective of truly masterful musicians could, cultivating it to produce longer, far more textured and subtle music that truly traveled to new and wondrous places.
The increased length was crucial, allowing the ensemble to explore in a profoundly open-ended manner, to follow flights of fancy or darker urges or both plus any number of other moods. Many of the opening jams and segues, not to mention internal jams in tunes like Bird Song, featured two, three, even four distinct themes, creating a shifting psychedelic tide that made every night even more unique, profoundly individual, than just a varied set list.
The Jam > Bird Song that opens only the second date of 2001 clocks in at 30 minutes (although to be fair, Derek Trucks was in the mix that night, and he’s always quick to push the envelope). But that kind of number quickly became common place; the expansiveness was simply the way the band did business. In Portland there’s a 45 minute Jam > Scarlet Begonias > Uncle John’s Band and a 20 plus minute Passenger, not to mention an hour and ten minute Dark Star > Eyes > Dark Star > Low Spark the next night.
- Stormy Mondays: Phil Lesh Quintet, Year 1
READ ON for more from Dan on Year Two of the PLQ…
The first soundboard release of the year comes from the last night at Maritime Hall in SF, and opens with a massive 25 minute Dancin’ in the Streets > an 18 minute Scarlet Begonias back into Dancin’. It’s a perfect example of what the band was capable of doing: it travels so far beyond the realm of song into a pure, blissful improvisational space that can only be attained by musicians whose understanding of one another extends far beyond mere communication. Ten minutes into the opening track it would be impossible to name the tune, but the music is far from spacey wandering and noodles: it’s focused, rich and entirely engaging. The old mockery of Deadheads turning to one another and asking, “Dude, what song are we in?” began to speak truthfully; it was easy, and entirely pleasing, to lose track and let the music take you where it wanted. It’s no wonder that between the West Coast dates and Here Comes Sunshine Tour a month and a half later, fans began to refer to Phil and Friends as the Phil Lesh Quintet, a reference to the mid sixties Miles Davis Quintet which was famous for its subtlety, big, big ears and easy responsiveness. (Although it comes up in interviews, Phil wouldn’t really start using the name himself on stage until the following year, at which point he and others simply called the ensemble The Q.)
However, lest anyone get the wrong idea, we need to remember that each night was not just spontaneous divine inspiration, musical miracle after musical miracle, but a finely crafted event. Late in the year, Phil repeatedly commented on the effort he put into set lists, somewhere near an hour per show, so that each set told a story, but both were part of a larger narrative. One of the best examples of this is the third soundboard of the year, 4/29 at Asbury Park. The show opens with an incredible Jam > Eyes > The Wheel > Low Spark > Cold Rain and Snow, but the obvious story is really in the second set. In the perpetually impoverished boardwalk town of the industrial era, The Q offers song after song of runaway trains (and their implied wrecks) with a stretch of Tons of Steel, Casey Jones and Midnight Train > Rider (“Gonna miss me when I‘m gone,”), followed by Broken Arrow, and later Shakedown Street (“Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart”). It’s a sad tale of a town long passed its decline, despite the rocking tunes.
Phil took this concept even furthur on his summer tour entitled Odyssey. Phil was the magnanimous king of jamnation in 2001, inviting just about everyone along for the ride: the Disco Biscuits, moe., SCI, Les Claypool, Warren playing solo acoustic, Galactic, Derek Trucks Band, Hot Tuna, Ratdog, Willie Nelson and the Allman Brothers Band all opened for the Q on the coast to coast sojourn that lasted from June to August. Sit-ins were frequent, and while Ratdog was sharing the bill, Bobby joined for a 20 minute, usually two song segments each night, fitting into the mix with grace ease–a noteworthy achievement as he’s a notoriously awkward guest. Those nights were also important as the sowed the seeds of the various Phil and Bobby collaborations that would follow in the years to come; every member of the Q was also in some incarnation of The Other Ones or The Dead.
Seven shows along the that tour featured composed instrumental pieces of varying length, placed either as opening jams or segues, and combined they make a suite that follows the soul’s journey through the cosmos after death: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the seven celestial bodies known to ancient cultures. If you happened to be up close at one of those gigs, you could see a Tarot trump and its complementary symbols in the center of the circle screen above the stage both before the show and during set break. No mention of what was going on ever came from the stage, but if you give a listen to the suite, you will hear so beautiful, inspiring music. It was heady experiment, and after the Jones Beach show featuring the Jupiter jam, I wrote, with their Mayan mythology and numerological leanings, “Sector 9’s got nothing on Phil.”
The other major feature of 2001 was band’s tendency to use Viola Lee Blues and Help > Slip > Franklin’s as major launching pads for the biggest jams of the show night after night. The old school ’69 rocker was usually broken into three heavy hitting segments during the second set, often with songs of a similar ilk sandwiched between; Bertha, Golden Road, Hard to Handle, Midnight Hour, Sugaree, and Shakedown were common, but others certainly entered the fold as well. Those jams could not help but please everyone in the room, whether they were in the audience or on the stage.
The classic mid seventies suite took advantage of the free-form nature of the instrumental number to place at its core Blues for Allah, I Am the Walrus, and most especially The Eleven. In fact it’s fair to say that Help > Slip > 11 > Slip > Franklin’s expresses just what The Q was doing in 2001, all the might, majesty and musicianship, better than any other single segue-fest. The version that is on the Red Rocks official soundboard (7/7/01) is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. It’s the entirety of disc two in a three disc release, and still thrills me every time I hear it. (It’s also worth noting that these two staples were synthesized into one massive set on August 5 in Atlanta: Jam > Help > Slip > Viola > Mason’s > Viola > Sugaree > Viola, Lovelight, Bird Song > China Cat > Slip > Franklin’s Tower. Whew!)
By the time fall tour came around, the PLQ had simply entered the consciousness of the live music world; it was a fearless super group that could do no wrong, leaving audiences dazed and exhausted after every show. Only a handful of soundboards were released (2/18, 4/20, 4/29, 4/30 and 7/7), but if you spend a little time digging around Archive.org, you’ll discover some unofficial boards and a number of stellar audience recordings. I would suggest 4/15, 4/19, Crusader Rabbit (PLQ + Weir, but without Warren) on 6/10, Charlie Miller’s recording of 6/30, 11/9 and of course 12/1, perhaps the most sublime Q performance, with a blistering dose of Americana (Acadian Driftwood > Uncle John’s Band > Deal) and a devastating Shakedown > Viola > Other One. The whole performance is absolutely electric, and for the encore Warren and Dickey Betts are reunited for Mountain Jam > GDTFB. You literally can’t go wrong in terms of performances from 2001 and it’s worth spending the time to find what’s out there. It was one long night of a thousand stars.
This week’s Stormy Monday, however, features a killer recording of the highlight of the East Coast leg of summer tour: the entire second set from Hartford on 7/21. The opening Jam is centered around Caution, although it also teases Broken Arrow (played in the first set) before opening on a colossal Dear Mr. Fantasy that just about shook the roof of the shed that night. And at 25 minutes, that’s just the start: St. Stephen > Eyes > St. Stephen > Help on the Way > Slipknot! > The Eleven > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower. A treasure trove show, so turn it up loud, and as always, enjoy!