That's right, boys and girls, it's time for another review of a show I was at! And boy what a show; Phil Lesh has a whole new line-up of musicians in his Phil Lesh & Friends band, and they are on fire! The band now include Mr. Lesh on bass, his son Grahame on acoustic and electric guitar, Luther Dickinson (Black Crowes, North Mississippi All-Stars) on electric and slide guitar, Anders Osborne (jazz/blues guitarist) on electric guitar, Tony Leone (Ollabelle) on the drum kit, and Jason Crosby (plays with anyone he can apparently, and regular at TRI studios) on keyboard, organ, and fiddle. They were preceded by Phil's other son's band, American Jubilee, with Brian Lesh, Scott Padden, Ross James, Craig MacArthur, and Alex Koford. Their instrumentation switched up a bit (and I don't actually know which ones were which specifically), but it featured Ross James on lead and Brian Lesh on rhythm (with some leads). Now as a disclaimer, which I should have for all of these reviews, I am going to hyperbolize a bit in this post. We got in right as the doors opened, and were in the very front row for the whole show, so to not exaggerate would do this good blog a true disservice. Even the dinner we had before it is worth a good hyperbole or two!
Some prelude is needed to capture the whole experience. I drove from Ithaca to Port Chester (right next to Connecticut) to meet my parents who drove from Boston. We arrived pretty close to each other, checked into our hotel in CT, then drove the 15 minutes into Port Chester. It's a cute little city that was pretty hectic from all those damn hippies closing their streets and parking everywhere, but we found a good spot and went to the restaurant my parents had picked out online (it had the best bar selection). It was called Kiosko, and there were surprisingly only a couple locals in there; maybe the Heads were all eating on Shakedown Street. The margaritas were generously proportioned, the food was as authentic as it gets north of the border, and our waitress seemed pleasantly taken aback by our enthusiasm (most reviews online were complaining that it wasn't like Taco Bell). I got a chipotle salmon dish that blew my taste buds away, and made me nervous the show couldn't live up to the meal (HA!), and the 3 salsas offered a wider range of taste than you'd expect. Anyway, after that we moseyed on down to Shakedown Street where I got a sweet new sweatshirt with flying Stealies on it (also deserving of some hyperbole, but I won't go on), and then got in line for doors opening at 5:30.
So a quick aside - Dead Heads can be crazy. I don't mean wide-pupiled, off-putting, Estimated Prophet crazy (although...you know). What I mean is that Shakedown Street, while being a sweet place to hang out and do all sorts of shopping, is there well before, and a bit after the show; but it is not better than getting in early and getting a spot right up front! Why hang out with your friends outside and then struggle to get a good seat when you could hang out with your friends inside right next to the stage?! Also, you're paying for both bands, so why would you skip out on the opener, especially when it's got a Lesh in the band?! I even saw people leave the Phil set early to go back to Shakedown - YOU PEOPLE ARE NUTS! But anyway...
We, like relatively sane people, were waiting at the doors with some new friends who had been at the last show, and after a casual pat-down from security (is that a pipe? well whatever man, go on in) casually walked right up to the stage, put our jackets on the barrier, and chatted it up while scoping out the theater. The Capitol is famous in Dead-lore for holding some incredible show over the years, and was recently renewed to its past glory, with the addition of a bar called Garcia's (named after...you guessed it!) and some mind blowing lights that displayed everything from fractals to leafy trees to Stealies on Stealies on Stealies! Our neighborhood security guard explained to us that this was his kind of music, and he was there to enjoy and help us enjoy without any hassles (a good guy for sure). The theater filled up very slowly (crazy people) and was maybe half-full when the lights went down for American Jubilee.
American Jubilee Set
Jam > Cinnamon Girl, St. Peter, California Skies, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, West, Round & Round, Henry Hill
So the theme of this tour is for them to do an album in each show, with the Jubilee doing some songs from it and Phil interspersing his sets with Dead songs (and others that aren't from the album or the Dead). This night they did a Neil Young album, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere," and I have to admit I knew no songs from it. I had prepared myself for this, though, and enjoyed hearing new songs along with some of my most-loved ones (but I'm getting ahead of myself). We were right in front of Ross James for this set, and they started out whit a jam (little bit of feedback, foreshadowing...) into Cinnamon Girl. James was having a great time throughout the set and they were all playing excellently. Brian Lesh has an amazing voice and a lot of his dad's intensity when it comes to music. All of the songs were done very well, but because I didn't really know them they kind of blended together in my head. I just found a recording on the archive though (put it at the top), so I plan to become very familiar with it. Jason Crosby also came out on fiddle for one of them. While they were all excellent, the real highlight for me was Round & Round by Neil Young. The drummer and keyboardist came over to sing in three-part harmony with Brian, and the result was beautiful. I was completely captivated, and found myself locking eyes with Brian at several points because I couldn't look anywhere else. While everyone knows the Dead's vocals were occasionally on-point (American Beauty, Workingman's Dead) but usually a bit rough-around-the-edges, this was from a whole other world where Donna never shrieked, Bobby knew all the words, and musicians can harmonize by accident. The set ended with a rocking, jammed out Henry Hill (never heard it before) that really showed these guys aren't just an opening band, and they don't exist just because Phil is Brian's dad.
Before moving on to the main event, I want to point out a few quirky things about American Jubilee. For starters, they all have excellent beards, and embrace Americana traditions wholeheartedly; they had a cool tie-dyed American flag on the organ and a pick-up truck on James' amp (upon my questioning, he insisted it served no real purpose [a likely story!]). They also, in any picture or real-life setting I've seen them in, are accompanied by at least two Lagunitas IPA's.
So after the theater really filled in, a foray out to the bathroom and the smoking area, we got our beers and reclaimed our positions up front. The family we had come in with had saved our seats, and we saved theirs later on; a true symbiotic relationship. Soon after we got back to the front, the lights went down and out came the band! We ended up right in front of Luther Dickinson and as a result he was pretty heavy in our mix, but we ended up being able to hear everything just fine. To his right was Crosby at the keys, and Lesh immediately to his left with Osborne and Grahame on his left (Leone was obviously behind them at the drums). Most people had figured out that they were doing the Neil Young album at that point, but some were like me and were still wondering. Some could even see the setlist on the floor, but we did our best to keep the mystery. After some tuning and test-riffs, the band eyed each other and kicked the show off without any hesitation.
Set 1: Ramblin' Man > Bertha, Down by the River, Peggy-O, Dire Wolf, The Losing Ends > Cumberland Blues
Set 2: Feedback > Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks) > Shake What Yo Mama Gave You > Sugaree, Running Dry > All Along the Watchtower > Death Don't Have No Mercy > Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad, Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower
Encore: Donor Rap, Cowgirl in the Sand > I Ain't the One
One of my dad's guesses had been that they would do an Allman Brother's album, so Ramblin' Man got us all excited! They really had that southern rock feel down pretty tight, thanks in large part to Dickinson who was already starting to melt faces (mine included). They rocked right through that one and were jamming out until Grahame started the unmistakeable Bertha riff on his acoustic. I thought it could have turned into Touch of Gray for a second, but they kept it on Bertha to great results! The band was really good at trading off the solos in jam sections, and it was exhilarating to see the shared glances, nods, and grins that went on throughout the show. There were no egos to contend with and no shyness; if they were gonna jam, they were gonna have fun and do their best!
After Bertha they went back to the album and did Down by the River, which had everyone who knew the song singing along, which was pretty cool even if you didn't know the song. This is one of those songs that, even though it was created by a different musician, it seems like it was made for a band like this to do. Phil was certainly loving it, and if the others on stage weren't at first (and they were), his enthusiasm definitely spread to them. This was almost over-shadowed immediately, however, when Phil stepped to the mike to sing a beautiful rendition of Peggy-O. While this song sometimes gets glanced over when looking at old Dead setlists as a slow-first-set-song, this one definitely stood out. Phil's voice was the best it's been in recent years with him hitting notes I didn't know he could ever hit, and he seemed very aware of his voice. While we all love it when he sings, there are definitely times where he maybe shouldn't be singing the song he's singing; this was absolutely not one of those times. They also had one more bar to the song after the main verses, and that made this version stand out even more.
They then went from one song that features the mythical land of Fennario to another: Dire Wolf. A nice little piece of self-awareness in a setlist that Robert Hunter has allegedly been doing recently as well. Things slowed down a bit as they did another song from the featured album, The Losing Ends. By slowed down, I of course mean in tempo and feel, not in energy. In fact all of these slow songs that they did were completely full of energy that had just been channeled into a slower manifestation; none of the tediousness that can sometimes slip into a ballad. This one even picked up energy as it went along! The jammed out of that into a seriously rocking Cumberland Blues, one of those songs that's been on my list of songs I have to get since I got into this music. Phil was positively beaming during that one, and the band was all on the same page. Not too surprisingly, after that they took a small break before the second set.
This set break proceeded about the same as the previous one, though a bit shorter. We continued to make friends with our neighbors, but also encountered some of the...less savory Heads. The star of that show was the sweaty guy with pupils bigger than his mohawk who was insisting he had to give Phil his hat. Though my dad and others convinced him at the time that Phil probably had plenty of hats and didn't want his (he was very sweaty), he eventually threw it to the very edge of the stage in the second set; Phil didn't notice, nor did he look like he needed a hat. But whatever, we all go a little crazy now and again, and who am I to judge? He was still saner than those people who came late and left early!
Anyway, the lights went back down and the band returned to the stage. Phil definitely had a sly look about him, and they all kept shooting each other conspiratorial glances. After a little bit of tuning, they all started getting right up to their monitors and feeding back. While according to the tape this didn't go on for too long, to be there (especially right in front of them) it seemed like a small eternity. I've always thought, as I believe I've written about before, that the Dead had the ability to create something truly metaphysical from feedback, and these guys had clearly been taking lessons from Phil. I thought it was must be heralding a pretty wild set, but how wild I had no idea...
BAM! They exploded right into Caution as if they had been doing Alligator all along, and my brain immediately shot into outer space! They filled the song with feedback and frantic jamming like you've never seen...unless you've seen the Dead I suppose. Dickinson turned his blues-meter to 11 and led the band through an epic version of the song that would have made Pigpen smile. He had his own style of doing the rapping that was very different from Pig's, but was certainly true to the tradition of balls-out psychedelic blues that the Dead are a part of. We were all shouting the responses (all you need!) back at him, but I couldn't hear myself think, let alone yell. But what we or Dickinson could hear of ourselves didn't matter; the feel was there, you knew everyone knew that all they needed was just that little touch...of mojo hand! They jammed without any snaggles into Shake What Yo Mama Gave You, another great blues song for Dickinson to get down with. They carried along in that manner until suddenly they were doing Sugaree! A definite change of pace, but they didn't falter at all, and killed the song as if they wrote it!
Next came a song (Running Dry) that my dad was sure was a jam into All Along the Watchtower...and that's exactly where it went next! It was definitely at a more mellow pace in Running Dry, but they soon hit their stride at a much faster pace for Watchtower. My dad and I have had many discussions about this song and who can/should play it after Hendrix (obviously) killed it. Both of us actually think the Dead and Furthur and not on that list, not because they can't play it well, but because their versions lack that je ne sais quoi. This version, however, would have had Jimi smiling right along with all of us. They took no prisoners and gave no quarter, it was a rock and roll massacre!
They then snaked into a song I thought I'd never hear, Death Don't Have Mercy. While obviously different from the 60's versions of the song that everyone loves, and different even from the 80's or post-Jerry revivals of it, it was excellent. Osborne took the vocals for this, and you could tell that he was singing about death. This may not be news for some of you, but this is not just another second-set-ballad. Obviously neither Wharf Rat nor Stella Blue are mediocre or "just another ballad," this song in particular has deep roots. This song reminds us that the world is a big, scary place that we just pretend to understand and control; death can show up in your house any time, and he don't need to stay long...
Perhaps Phil, in his wisdom, knew that this song needed a follow-up to show us the flip side, so they jammed right into Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad. This is the song I've gotten the most at my Dead shows, but I always enjoy it and this was no exception! I was a little let down at first because I usually receive it as a set-closer or an encore, but I figured I had gotten more than my money's worth out of this show already and I shouldn't get greedy. After the final chorus and a new verse from Phil ("goin' where the pavement suits my shoes"), the stage lights went to normal white color and the band stood around for a bit...but didn't leave the stage. They started tuning a bit and started strumming the beat of the next song and...no, it couldn't be. Could it?
Bam! Caught off guard again! They slammed into Help on the Way with the force of a whale hitting a planet and I just lost it. The Help/Slip/Franklin trio has always been one of my favorite segments of the Dead's repertoire, and after I got one from Furthur at Bethel Woods last summer I thought I had gotten my only one. But holy shit, these guys killed it. The jam in the middle of Help on the Way was outstanding, possibly better than the Furthur one (so hard to say), and the band was thinking as one. Slipknot! is notorious for being tricky, but these guys didn't hesitate or miss a step at all. They got way out there almost immediately in a jam like no other Slipknot! I've heard, with bits of feedback and new themes flying by like galaxies. There's no point in trying to compare it with the Bethel one because they were so different, so let me just say they're both beautifully weird. Tony Leone, who had been on point all show, really showed that he could get wild and weird in the drum fills. I actually locked eyes with Phil during one and he mouthed to me "pretty good, huh?", to which I nodded and stuck out my tongue and received a similar gesture (my life is now complete after Phil stuck out his tongue at me). They finally landed on the closing riff to come out into a rolling Franklin's Tower. Phil was still singing at his peak, and they played that song til they couldn't play it no more. I'm still a little shell shocked!
That ended the set on a pretty definitive note. Phil wasted little time to come up and give what seemed like the most personal Donor Rap I've seen him deliver. He really seemed to be enjoying himself and to be grateful for everything. His wrist band now has CODY on it, which of course is the name of the little boy that became an organ donor and saved the lives of 8 people including Phil. They did a double encore that finished the Neil Young album: Cowgirl in the Sand > I Ain't the One. Both of them were great, but it was the closest I've ever come to just wishing they'd stop jamming and finish the song. I still loved them, but I was completely drained at that point - Franklin's Tower requires a lot of dancing!
So that's the show, folks. We made it to the hotel room with our ears still ringing, unwound for a bit, and then slept hard. Luckily it was daylight savings (said no one ever) and we got an extra hour of sleep before waking up for breakfast and check-out. My ears finally stopped hurting the next day, but I didn't care. That was one of the best shows I've ever seen in definitely the coolest venues I've been to. I hope you guys listen to it, or at least the songs that stand out to you in the setlist, because this show really has the magic that we love in music. While I was wiped out, I also felt totally cleansed and renewed, a truly soulful ritual that we all undertook.
Let me know if you have any requests or suggestions for my next post. I have no idea what it will be about, but probably not another review...but maybe!