Sunday, March 27, 2016

Phil Lesh's 76th Birthday Night One (or a Return to Blogging)

Well hi again, folks!  Sorry for not following through on my promise to get back to regular updates, but now I'm back with some fresh reviews!  My parents and I drove down to Port Chester, yet again, to see Phil Lesh and Friends (in the famous "Q" lineup this time) and celebrate Phil's 76th(!) birthday!  This has become something like an annual pilgrimage for us, typically going down for a couple of shows at a time, and as long as Phil keeps showing up, so will we. The Capitol Theater is an incredible venue with great staff, pristine sound quality, and mind-bending visuals. It’s no wonder Phil apparently only wants to play here and Terrapin Crossroads.

Night One (2016-03-17)

    We checked into our hotel in Stamford, CT on Thursday afternoon for the first of two shows. After getting settled and listening to some of the recording of the show from Phil's birthday, we headed out for our usual parking lot and our favorite Mexican restaurant, Kiosko.  Originally Phil announced shows on Thursday and Friday nights, for which we bought tickets immediately, but later he also added a show on Tuesday, his actual birthday, that we decided not to go to.  The Capitol Theater warned us ahead of time that security at the door would be a little more strict than usual, but it was really very easy-going.  Being St. Patrick's day, I think they were more worried about people bringing in their own booze than anything else.  We stopped and got some new t-shirts at the merchandise table before heading up to our assigned seats up in the balcony. We had an excellent view of the entire stage, and we settled in to wait for the lights to go down.

Here is a link to a good audience recording (also the only one available).  Just note that the track listing is inaccurate after The Other One:

And here's the link for the official soundboard:

You can also view my mom's pictures for both shows at the link below:

First Set

Jam > Dear Mr. Fantasy (Haynes) > Jam > China Cat Sunflower (Barraco) > Let it Ride (Lesh), Passenger (Haynes & Barraco) > Cosmic Charlie (Lesh), Cassidy (Barraco), Spots of Time (Haynes)

    We expected both that they would open with a jam into something and that the setlist would have a few entries under "Jam," and we were certainly not disappointed.  This band is really all about the jams and is less about doing songs the way the Dead did them, which for some people is a real turn-off.  But we love it!  The whole appeal of going to Phil and Friends shows is hearing Dead songs in different contexts and settings, but still having one of the leading creative minds from the band driving them. All of these songs were performed very differently from how any other Dead band would do them, and they were all excellent.  My only criticism of the whole show is that in the first set Haynes seemed to drop the ball on where some of the changes were (“China Cat,” “Passenger,” “Cassidy”), and he had a total Bobby moment in “Passenger” when he forgot the lyrics for a bit and they just added in another little jam to give him time to get on the same page as Barraco.  It's totally possible that these weren't mistakes, but rather intentional decisions to change the songs up a bit from what everyone expected. I could very well be the one who totally missed something; maybe I'll reread this in a month after listening to the recording for the hundredth time and think, "Man, what an idiot I was back in March!"  For now I'm marking those as mistakes in my book, but they were ultimately overshadowed by the incredible playing in all other parts of the show.

The opening jam was obviously very free form, but eventually started to sound more and more familiar, until it was undeniably “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”  Haynes crushed the lyrics right out of the gates, and the solos flowed freely between him, Herring, and Barraco.  Haynes' voice can be so soulful and this song really showcased that side of him.  Soon though, they left that song behind and fell into a small jam that resolved itself into an excellent “China Cat Sunflower!”  Despite my slight criticism above, this song was a real standout of the night and very surprising to come in the second song slot!  Even with Haynes seeming a bit lost on the more structured parts of the song, the man is unstoppable once he gets into a good jam.  Speaking of a good jam, this seems like the place to start a small tangent...

How do you decide when to insert a "Jam" into a setlist?  Now this is a very broad question that I plan to devote a whole other blog post to, but it is directly relevant to this crossroads in the setlist.  I denoted this show’s setlist as: “China Cat Sunflower > Let it Ride,” rather than, “China Cat Sunflower > Jam > Let it Ride”.  I feel this is justified because it is intrinsic to the nature of “China Cat” to have a jam coming out of it, just like with ”The Other One” or “Dark Star;” if you feel the need to separate and label every individual jam, then every “Dark Star” would be labeled with something like 17 different jams, and a song like “St. Stephen” would be St. “Stephen > Jam > St. Stephen”, even though it's really all one song.  This jam was not your typical post-”China Cat” jam, and last time we were at the Capitol I will admit they didn't do the jam and just went into “Eyes” (more on that in the future), but I still posit that in most situations, this one included, you do not need to specify “China Cat > Jam”, because the jam is implied.
Alright, enough on that, moving on!  “Let it Ride” is a Ryan Adams song that Phil has done with his Friends and Furthur in the past, and I've always wanted to hear it. Crossing that off my list!  This was a little unexpected, but maybe very clever on Phil's part: instead of “I Know You Rider,” he threw in a different song with "Ride" in the name. Ok, maybe it's just slightly clever...  Herring was playing excellently up to this point, but he really grabbed my attention during this song.  He's such an inspired player, and there seems to be no ego between him and Haynes. The two of them share their solos so effortlessly and without anyone stepping on the other's toes.  After this song we got our first breather of the night and some time for everyone to scratch their asses, while Haynes reached for his slide for the next songs.

I've heard plenty of both “Passenger” and “Cosmic Charlie” (both played at my first show), but nevertheless I always welcome them anyway.  I was actually really hoping for “Passenger” with these two guitarists, and except for Haynes' small confusion it was everything I had hoped it would be, if a little shorter than I expected.  Phil allegedly wrote the song in '77 in an effort to get Bobby and Jerry to play with a raunchier sound, something that Haynes and Herring had no trouble doing!  This rolled into a mellow but fun “Cosmic Charlie” that had everyone singing along:

Go on home, your mama's calling you (calling yoouuuu...)

I haven't said much about Barraco so far, but it’s not because he didn’t shine.  He and Phil were the only ones on the stage that I had seen live before, so I wasn't surprised he played excellently; he was just living up to my expectations!  His playing was inspired,whether on piano or organ, and his vocals were the best in the band.  He led us into “Cassidy” (after a brief Star Wars tease) which was a surprise for many of us, being a Bobby song that’s uncommon for Phil to play without him.  The song had been floating around in my head as one that this band would absolutely nail, but I never really thought they would play it!  Here again, Haynes seemed slightly confused, but once they got jamming it was really something to behold.

    After “Cassidy” they closed the set with a song that most people seemed unfamiliar with, and we sure didn't know it.  According to the notes on, “Spots of Time” is a song that Haynes and Lesh wrote, but haven't played since 2008.  I'll have to listen to it more before I really know anything about the song, but I enjoyed it a lot, and the jam at the end was rousing!  The set lasted a little more than an hour by our rough estimates, which is just about average, and then it was time for Intermission, some drinks, and a smoke break.

Second Set

Mason's Children (All) > Mountain Jam > Mountains of the Moon (Lesh) > Night of a Thousand Stars (Haynes) > Mountains of the Moon (Lesh) > The Other One (Barraco) > Cryptical Envelopment Reprise (Lesh), St. Stephen (All) > The Midnight Hour (Haynes)

The lights had gone down already, but my Dad made it back to the seats just in time for the second set, and we immediately called the first song from their tuning.  “Mason's Children” is another that I've had plenty of experience with from both Furthur and Phil and Friends, but I don't think I'll ever get tired of it.  Phil obviously loves to play the song, and he has turned it into one of the most versatile songs in the repertoire.  It starts out balls-to-the-wall hard rock, but then it can go anywhere; you can break it in half and put another song in the middle, you can stay balls-to-the-wall, you can blast off for outer-space, or you can do a great mixture of all three with a little something extra!  I was a little nervous about Haynes on this song because it is fairly complicated with a lot of segments that resemble other segments, but Haynes didn't miss a single beat for the whole rest of the show.

They smoked their way on out of “Mason's” into a jam that for a minute I thought/hoped would resolve itself into the “Wheel” (one of the last big jam songs I haven't gotten), but instead Haynes absolutely floored us by pulling it into “Mountain Jam”!  His years playing with the Allman Brothers were well spent, and Phil was just beaming throughout.  Sometimes I think Phil feels more free playing other people's songs because he can play them fresh each time, without having the burden of 50 years of history on his shoulders.  This was probably the first time in the show that I think the band really achieved lift-off. The whole first set was incredible and I'm definitely going to spend a lot of time listening to it, but this was the first of many times in the second set that they found that effortless space where the music plays the band and the very air seems to open and unfold before your eyes.  Phil was definitely thinking along a bit of a theme when he created this setlist, because from “Mountain Jam” we found ourselves on the “Mountains of the Moon.”

    It's hard to say anything about this song now, because it's pretty much the same thing I said about “Mason's,” except this one doesn't start balls-to-the-wall, it starts dark and mysterious and then goes anywhere Phil wants it to.  The last few of these I’ve seen were with Larry Campbell playing esoteric acoustic instruments, so it was cool to see it with all electric instruments again.  Like I said, this can go anywhere in much the same way as “Mason's,” and Phil really likes to sandwich songs into the middle of it. Here Phil seemed to be playing with another small theme in mind: from “Mountain Jam” we went to the “Mountains of the Moon,” and while we were there we looked up into a...

“Night of a Thousand Stars!”  Phil wrote this song for his 2002 album, There and Back Again, recorded with the Q.  I had never seen it live and honestly kind of forgot about it, but it really is a great song!  It feels like a celebration of sorts, which is odd as that's another song on the same album, and the lyrics were written by Robert Hunter.  I'll admit I would have preferred the “Wheel,” “Dark Star,” or “Fire On the Mountain” (continuing with the mountain theme), but who am I to complain!  If Phil's having fun, then he's playing better, so it doesn't make any sense to complain about the songs he chooses.  Barraco's lead in this song just blew us away, and the jam back into “Mountains of the Moon” was stellar, with Haynes teasing “Mountain Jam” while the rest of the band soared above the lunar peaks.  I thought for a moment that they would make it into a triple sandwich and would transition into another song before the third lyric, and Phil had a look like maybe he was thinking about it, but then they finished it up and went into...oh my god.

    Long time readers of the blog may remember I have a special affinity for “The Other One,” but had never gotten one in the past.  Last year I did actually get two of them, one in Santa Clara at the Fare Thee Well shows (more on that another time), and one at the Capitol this last Halloween.  I'll also have to do a post about the Halloween shows, but the only thing I'll say for now was that that was “The Other One” I had always been waiting for.  I can say, completely honestly, that this was the other “The Other One” I had been waiting for!  This version stayed along the main theme for a while, but then they totally went off into all the possible corners of the song they could find, kind of like the Dead would do from ‘71-’74.  Phil did his intro bass run into the song, which I hadn't gotten on the other two versions, and even though it didn't knock out all the windows and bring the building crumbling down on top of us, it came pretty damn close!  This was another one of those moments where my jaw dropped through the floor of the balcony and all the way down to the floor of the level below us.  Barraco surprised everyone by taking the lyrics, as typically Phil sings this song in his bands, but he absolutely killed it.  Phil normally stretches the vocals out in a very spacey way, but Barraco did the traditional Bobby version.  Maybe I'm not the most objective witness, but I swear the whole theater was levitating throughout the song, and the band still wasn't done surprising us!

On Halloween they did "Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One > Death Don't Have No Mercy," and they left “Cryptical” unfinished, which was fine with us and we never expected to hear the end of it.  But here we were in 2016 with Phil wrapping up “The Other One” and going right into the “Cryptical Reprise” out of nowhere!  It was a funny little bit of synchronicity that we really appreciated.  There were some hints of “Dark Star” and “Wharf Rat” as the song progressed, but ultimately the jam mellowed out until it ultimately dissolved, which gave everyone some time to catch their breaths and look around in awe.  Even the band had looks on their faces that said "Woah."

I don't think they betrayed this in their tuning or anything, but somehow we and the people around us all knew that they were going to do “St. Stephen” next, and lo and behold, there it was!  Maybe Phil figured, "Well, it is Saint Patrick's Day and this song has ‘Saint’ in the name..."  This is another that falls into the category of songs I've heard many times already, but will never get tired of hearing; in fact, this was my third outing to the Capitol in a row where they played it!  For any of you who have never been to a Dead show, it’s nearly impossible to describe what it's like to be in the crowd during this song; also, how'd you get this far in the blog if you know nothing about this?  It's truly a spectacular feeling; the initial rush as they play those opening chords and everyone loses it at once, the glory of everyone singing along, the quiet "lady finger" section building up to the classic riff, the raw power of the jam, and the feeling of everything snapping back into place as they come out of the jam back into that classic riff.  And of course, what would be the answer to the answer man?

    In this case, something totally unexpected, but completely welcome, “The Midnight Hour”!  This was a real showcase for Haynes, both vocally and instrumentally.  I don't think I've ever put this song on a potential setlist or thought they were going to play it at a show, but now I can't wait to see another one!  It was one of the Dead's earliest jam vehicles, and while this one didn't go for thirty minutes like it used to, you could still tell they were wringing it for all it was worth.  They finished to uproarious applause and went backstage until Phil came out to do his Donor Rap.  At the time we thought it was strangely short, but upon listening to the tape we discovered that the beginning was just drowned out by the crowd and we hadn’t heard all of it.

Donor Rap/Encore
Days Between (Haynes)

    The encore was totally unexpected, but it was another one I've been waiting to hear. Phil’s birthday show encored with “Standing on the Moon,” so maybe that's just his plan for this run--to send everyone home on a more mellow note.  Haynes did a great job singing in a kind of alternative rock way with his voice seeming plaintive and drawn out.  I prefer the way that Bobby's been singing it in the last few years, but the whole song was incredible.  They closed this one off, introduced the band, and we all left with smiles on our faces; well, except for one person who had to be taken away in an ambulance as we drove by -- some people were definitely taking Saint Patrick's day too seriously.  We got back to the hotel without incident, checked online to confirm our memories of the setlist, and called it a night.