2010 has been a year of big anniversaries: it’s been 15 years since Jerry Garcia graced the planet and ten years since Allen Woody’s ugly mug and gentle soul stood on a stage. Thankfully there are also some happy celebrations to be had, most importantly the birth of the greatest band that ever was, The Phil Lesh Quintet, featuring guitar giants Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring, walking Grateful Dead encyclopedia and fearless pianist Rob Barraco, master drummer John Molo and one of the great band leaders of the last decade (even aside from the Q), Phil Lesh; and it’s no mystery all three events are closely intertwined.
While Bob Weir spent the years directly after Jerry Garcia’s death on the road with Ratdog, doing his best to keep the spirit alive, Phil Lesh hosted only a small number of Phil and Friends gigs throughout the late 1990’s, and those stayed in the Bay Area, including those Norcal characters one might assume; there was good music, but the shows were very much a family affair, intimate and loose. Prairie Prince and Steve Kimock were regulars, as were members of the David Nelson Band, but the truly noteworthy three night stand that shifted the whole balance of the improv rock world was of course the legendary Phil and Phriends Warfield run featuring Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell.
This meeting of musical minds broke down any barriers, real or imagined, between the two camps that occupied opposite aesthetic ends of the field of live music masters. The old guard was forced to admit the prowess and power of the still underground (despite their massive following) gurus of glowstick wielding masses, and those very figureheads were finally free to admit the influence and their love of Grateful Dead music, something they had been avoiding for 15 years in order to the constant and sloppy moniker of the inheritors of the Grateful Dead’s ethos. “Everything I do to get the title, but when they use it on me, I’ll reject it,” Trey had so often sung, but now he sang Robert Hunter’s lyrics too.
READ ON for more of this week’s Stormy Mondays…
Those shows lived up to the expectations at the time, and still hold up to the hype all these years later; there are some messy segues and missteps, but mostly there is magic, and joy. The Dark Star > It’s Up to You > Dark Star > Days Between > My Favorite Things, to my ears, is one of the most beautiful suites of music ever performed by anyone. But aside from the super group status of the run, the Warfield shows also, along with a new liver and a new lease on life, spurred Phil to take his new approach to the GD songbook, treating it like a cannon that was open to interpretation and revision, to a broader audience.
In the fall of 1999, Phil joined Bob Dylan for a full tour’s worth of dates, his band featuring a veritable round robin of players (including John Molo whom Phil had first met while sitting in with Bruce Hornsby). Not long into the tour, the Phil and Kimock duo, described as the “Energizer Bunny” in the liner notes to the double disc Highlights Volume One featuring music from the mid summer 1999 dates featuring Jorma Kaukonen, abruptly split. The story behind the rift is still a shady one, with any number of chat room denizens claiming to know the real story, but never explaining it fully, and/or contradicting other accounts: it was about money or autonomy, Phil and Steve, Steve and Jill (Lesh, Phil’s wife and manager), billing or risk taking.
Regardless, Phil was left in the lurch and had everyone from Paul Barrere on the early dates to Derek Trucks to Jorma to Warren filling in. It was true that on this tour, the first Phil and Friends shows ever for the East Coast, fans literally did not know what they would get from night to night. The Barrere dates of course also featured Billy Payne, but when the Little Feat pair departed Rob Barraco joined–he and his Zen Trickster comrade Jeff Mattson having joined Phil at the beginning of October in San Francisco. Despite the shifting nature of the band, some of the fall ’99 sets are truly spectacular.
The 14 dates in November with the Trucks/Haynes line-up start strong and end absolutely blistering. A good part of the Q’s sound and approach was born in this crucible, most notably the opening jam, a five to fifteen minute mini-odyssey that blended a multitude of Grateful Dead teases over driving grooves and psychedelic wanderings. Some standout sets include Pittsburgh (11/5), Philadelphia (11/9), and the odd Saturday through Monday run of Meadowlands (11/13), Worcester (11/14), and Phil’s return to Barton Hall at Cornell, which also included Jorma (11/15).
[Photo by Jim Anderson]
In the spring of 2000, what we have since come to think of as Phil Lesh and Friends appeared for the first time: a consistent band playing two set shows in small theaters, largely in the Northeast, for multi-night stands. The rhythm section from the fall remained but the lead roles were now occupied by Jeff Pevar, David Crosby’s guitar slinging partner in CPR with his arsenal of axes that looked like something akin to Kimock’s array, and Jimmy Herring, a monster player of high pedigree but little name recognition amongst the wider public. One of Col. Bruce Hampton’s prodigies, the humble but fierce guitarist shredded with lightning speed through the mix of quirky, obtuse and rootsy music that made up Aquarium Rescue Unit’s repertoire in the early nineties, and later in the decade joined jazz fusion greats Alphonso Johnson and Billy Cobham, along with T. Lavitz, to form Jazz is Dead, a band that dished out searing instrumental versions of the GD catalogue.
The group appeared around the same time as a number of other not-exactly-family projects that hoped to capitalize on Grateful Dead nostalgia, such as Joe Gallant and Illuminati’s big band interpretations and the Pickin’ on the Dead series of bluegrass CDs, and maybe garnered less recognition than it deserved; but clearly, with its sound that had more in common with Steve Kimock’s and that of other bands in the turn of the century soul-groove revolution (Soulive, Galactic, etc.) than Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, it did catch Phil’s ear. No doubt recommendations from Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes were also in the mix. This incarnation of Phil and Friends was short lived, but once again was able to deliver the goods: lots of fluid segues between songs that were wrenched out of their accepted set places and time periods, and an overflow of energy. Pevar never quite found his place though, didn’t win the hearts of the faithful; his constant switching of guitars and slightly too cheery and sonorous vocals stood out as showy in contrast to his counterpart’s quiet stage presence; the bearded Herring stood almost still on the other side of the stage while he responded with deft listening to his band mates’ every move and effortlessly blazed through his solos.
In May of 2000 Jimmy replaced Dickey Betts in the Allman Brothers Band for a brief stint–not an entirely successful outing, as anytime Jimmy and Derek share the stage, they quickly travel very, very far off the beaten track, even without fellow ARU brother in arms Oteil Burbridge in the mix. Meanwhile Phil rallied another group for a coast to coast series of summer dates opening for Bob Dylan: Paul and Billy, Molo and Robben Ford. The magic wasn’t there, however; or more accurately, the edgy sense of breaking new ground that had characterized the previous two dozen or so shows wasn’t there, and the line-up and tour are both often and easily overlooked. Still, by August one can imagine that Phil had seen and heard what he needed in order to pick and choose the very best elements to create the very best band; he knew what worked within the Grateful Dead tradition but could also see what would recapture the exploratory spirit of those earliest days in the 1960’s and breathe new life into the music. (It’s worth noting that in the middle of the Beacon run in April, the members of the Q all shared the stage for the first time when Warren played the entire second set and was given the special guest limelight. Set II of 4/18 opens with a pretty stunning Low Spark > Blue Train, has a majestic jam from Just a Little Light > Morning Dew that hints at the possibilities that would be realized in the years to come, and a huge dose of Warren in the pairing of Sugaree and Lovelight to close.)
Also in August of 2000, music fans everywhere were shocked when Allen Woody died. He had garnered a place in history as the bassist for the Allman Brothers Band during its revival in the 1990’s, driving the band to new heights, and was always on the cusp of greater and greater things since leaving the band with Warren to focus on Gov’t Mule full time. Something about his passing seemed extra tragic; there was so much potential and power in his playing and his band, but delicacy too when he strapped on that mandolin. And the community surrounding him poured out its love on one legendary night at Roseland in NYC, the marathon One For Woody.
His passing, beyond being a crushing blow personally, also seemed a blow to Warren’s musical vision: how can a power trio continue without its bassist? But it was there that, in the midst of a brilliant collection of bands and guest artists, Warren found a new outlet and finally joined Phil Lesh and Friends full time, along with Molo, Barraco and Herring, and the PLQ was born. This week’s Stormy Mondays features that set in its entirety: Jam > Dark Star > Unbroken Chain > Rider, Black Peter > Dark Star > The Wheel > Doin’ That Rag > Sunshine of Your Love.
What you’ll hear is the all the elements that made up the band’s greatness in its earliest stages: some super-smooth segues (although there are rough ones too), rolling jams, great songs and half-second mirroring from Jimmy and Warren, all mixed together in a bubbling psychedelic ooze. The songs aren’t as expansive as they would become (the finale jam to Unbroken Chain that would become Herring’s calling card is entirely absent although the Sunshine of Your Love closer stretches out in true PLQ style), but it seems special that this was where and when the band made its debut. Let’s start at the beginning.
Of course the other noteworthy detail of Phil Lesh and Friends in 2000 is that Phil was so impressed with his new band that he quickly released a series of soundboards for free. They’re all breathtaking performances and the mix is nothing short of fantastic; they are truly amazing recordings. When they were initially released, we were still in the age of CDs, and while I certainly listened to full shows over and over again, I came to actually think of them in terms of individual discs. There’s a fair amount of music to wade through, so by way of providing a little direction, I’m also featuring Disc Two of the 10/24/00 show, my favorite single disc, which covers the end of set I and the beginning of set II: Jam > New Potato Caboose > Passenger, Box of Rain, Bertha, She Said She Said > Dark Star. It’s absolutely amazing.
Next week we’ll delve into 2001, Year Two of the Phil Lesh Quintet, but for now, happy listening, and as always enjoy!