(Writer’s note: I wrote this a while ago, and don’t want to change the whole thing to fit a month or so later, so just pretend it’s still October! As always, pictures are from my mom, and the whole album is avilable here https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarahebourne/albums/72157672315633374)
It’s that time of year again: pumpkins are looking spooky, squirrels are putting on weight, and Phil is doing a run of shows for Halloween at the Capitol Theatre! As soon as the shows were announced my parents and I got tickets for Friday and Saturday nights; the Monday night Halloween show will probably be great, but it didn’t work for our work schedules. Our shows featured similar, but slightly different lineups, and Monday was the same band as Friday. Everyone involved was a veteran Friend of Phil’s, with only Barry Sless (pedal steel and electric guitar) and Nicki Bluhm (vocals) being new to us. Everyone else on stage we had seen with Phil and/or in their own bands: Larry Campbell (any stringed instrument he can lay his hands on), Teresa Williams (vocals), Jason Crosby (keyboards), John Molo (drums), and Luther Dickinson (electric guitar). The next night was mostly the same, but instead of Larry and Teresa, Scott Metzger (electric guitar) from JRAD filled in.
We got a hotel in nearby Armonk, and followed our tradition of eating at Kiosko, a local Mexican restaurant in Port Chester that we can’t recommend highly enough: great food at great prices with friendly services! Our usual parking spot apparently was taken over by a new pizzeria, so we parked in the church parking lot across from the theatre; same price, but a little less convenient for getting in and out of. We swung by Shakedown Sidewalk to check out the wares, then headed into the theatre itself. Before heading to our seats we stopped at the merch table to get the poster for the night, which I just had to buy (my parents got the same design as a shirt). Our seats were just a couple rows back in the balcony and dead center (ha), so we had some of the best vantage points in the theatre. As they did last year for Halloween, they were playing the old cartoon classic Skeleton Dance on the walls, this time with the addition of Nosferatu and some spooky visuals.
To our surprise, the theatre was just about full by 8pm when the show was advertised to start; people must have heard that Phil’s a punctual kind of guy...well they started about half an hour later, so relatively punctual. The lights went down, the band came on stage, and the crowd roared: here we go!
- Til the Morning Comes (LC & TW)
- One of the best ways to start a show is by crossing off a song I’ve had on my list as long as I’ve had a list!
- A song with an unfortunately short-lived lifespan on the Dead’s repertoire, this was one I knew Phil did with Larry and Teresa, and was so glad to finally see live.
- The very first lyrics were a bit misplaced, giving the song a slightly awkward start, but they recovered quickly and didn’t miss another step for the whole song!
- Larry and Teresa, a husband and wife duo, are some of the best musicians around, and their voices fit with each other so perfectly, especially on anything with just a little bit of a country flavor to it. Larry is a master of any instrument that has strings attached to it, and his outro solo showed us that he wasn’t going to hold anything back for this show.
- Peggy-O (PL, TW, & LC)
- It just wouldn’t be a show with Larry, Teresa, and Phil if they didn’t do “Peggy-O!”
- They gave this one a really extended intro jam, with fireworks from Larry on cittern (or something) and Barry on pedal steel.
- I think Phil, Larry, and Teresa meant to swap the vocals in the same way they’ve done in the past, with Phil acting as Narrator, Larry as William, and Teresa as Peggy, but Phil was having such a good time that he sang the first few verses himself! The main reason I think this is Teresa chimed in on a Peggy line, and Phil noticed and started laughing at the end of the line. Could have been for any reason, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
- Everyone got leads in the jams between verses, with effortless transitions from one player to another.
- Uncle John’s Band (ALL) >
- Larry switched over to his mandolin and Barry got up from his pedal steel to strap on his electric guitar for the first of what turned out to be many times. I had assumed he would be on pedal steel the whole night, so was a little disappointed to have him on yet another electric guitar. He played great, and filled in a lot of the Jerry licks that pull these songs together, but his pedal steel voice is so unique and clear that I would have loved to hear more of it.
- Gripes aside, this was a beautiful “Uncle John’s Band,” partly because it was Nicki Bluhm’s debut of the night. She blended her voice beautifully with Teresa’s, and together they formed a powerful vocal backbone for the song.
- As I said above, Barry took a lot of the Jerry licks that we all take for granted, and really impresses me. He was trading great licks with Luther in the first jam section, while Larry basically just soloed over them the whole time.
- They slid perfectly into the 7/4 jam section, and just when I thought Barry was really about to take the lead, Jason started going crazy on his piano. He reminds me of Keith in that his physical presence on stage is not very dominating, but his playing turns everyone’s head. He caught me by surprise last Fall with Phil, and he’s been one of my favorite keyboardists since.
- They nailed the closing verses and went back into the 7/4 jam with Larry getting back onto his electric guitar while Luther took some powerful leads. Eventually Molo drove them into a new tempo, arriving on another Workingman’s Dead classic...
- Cumberland Blues (ALL)
- What a perfect song for this band! Barry stayed on his guitar for a bit before sitting back down at his pedal steel, and things got very rockabilly from there.
- Larry took the first solo of the song, and it was hard to tell who was more impressed, us or Luther Dickinson! He spent a lot of this night playing right up next to Larry, staring at his fingers in amazement while somehow managing to (mostly) keep up.
- The rocked their way through the song, really stretching out the jams between verses so everyone had time to solo and explore the song, like some kind of psychedelic country playground.
- Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (LD)
- Barry went back to his guitar and Larry switched over to a fiddle for this one, and we started to wonder if he would play a different instrument for each song.
- At first I thought it was going to be “New Minglewood Blues,” but then it was obvious what they were playing. We saw Luther do this one with his band North Mississippi All-Stars at the Green River Festival this past year, and he really killed it then. This was a great version of it as well, but this band clearly wasn’t as familiar with the song and Luther’s way of playing it. It’s mostly just straight blues, but a little loose with the tempo, and instead of playing a regular guitar he played a stick with some strings attached to a can, that he occasionally sang through. Safe to say, he was the Bobby of the night in a few ways.
- River Deep, Mountain High (TW)
- Each time I’ve seen a run of shows with Phil, Larry, and Teresa they’ve done this song, though this stood out as unique because it wasn’t sandwiched in the middle of a monster “Dark Star” or “Mountains of the Moon.”
- This one was definitely punchier than the other two, partly because it wasn’t surrounded by boundless space at either end. Barry and Luther seemed a little less familiar with this one, but they still did a great job. Once it hit the jam in the middle of the song, everyone really excelled.
- Of course the real star of this song is Teresa, singing with more power than you could imagine. Not only did she sing well, but the song’s timing is trickier than it seems, making it that much harder to sing in time. But Teresa killed it, as she always does.
- Sugaree (LD & NB)
- Nicki came back out for this one, and they mellowed slowly into the song with an Allman Brother’s-esque intro. While I was rolling my eyes at getting yet another “Sugaree,” I could already tell this one would be special.
- Nicki and Luther traded verses, giving it a nice spin compared to every other version. Luther flubbed a few of his verses (told you he was the Bobby) but Nicki nailed each one.
- Instead of putting a separate solo between every verse, they would each sing two verses, and then the solos would get doubled up so no one missed out. This is another of those songs that is really very simple, it’s simple structure just makes it easier to play incredible solos over in ever-changing ways.
They brought the song to close and the lights came back on. We were thrilled so far; while they hadn’t done anything close to any of the setlists we had created, they had so far surpassed or at least met our expectations for the quality of playing. I joined the line for the smoking section, getting the real cattle treatment. While I think it’s great that a lot of people respect the Capitol Theatre’s rules about smoking inside (even joints, surprisingly), their smoking section is too small for the size of the venue, and getting out there in time for the second set is very cramped situation. Sure, you can go out front, but then you’re smoking your joint right in front of a New York cop, as opposed to a venue staff member who just wants to make sure you’re not causing any trouble. Either way, I got out there and back inside in time to hit the bathroom, get some water, and get to my seat before the second set started.
- Casey Jones (NB)
- Didn’t see this one coming, but it was a great way to start the set! Like with “Til the Morning Comes,” the beginning felt like it was a little off, but then they slid right into the song with no further troubles.
- Larry, Luther, and Barry (who was on his guitar instead of the pedal steel, which would have been great on this song) all got shots at the solo section, stretching the song out a little more.
- All in all a great performance, but it felt kind of slow and controlled the whole time, as opposed to the versions that pick up speed while the chorus repeats over and over and get a little loose.
- Midnight Highway (LC & TW)
- Phil did this with Larry and Teresa when we first saw them play together, and I didn’t realize until they started singing how much I wanted to see them do it again.
- Teresa picked up an acoustic guitar for this and Barry got back on the pedal steel, meaning this was the most amount of strings on stage at any point in the concert.
- This is a straight up country ballad, and Teresa just sings it so beautifully. With the addition of Barry on the pedal steel, this version blew away the previous one we had seen. It has such a soulful and forlorn sound to it.
- Crossroads (LD & NB)
- I kind of equate this one to “After Midnight” in my head, in that Phil took a relatively straightforward Clapton song (made famous by him at least) and stretched it out into a psychedelic journey through uncharted lands.
- Luther kind of flubbed his way through some more lyrics, but Nicki nailed this song.
- Like I said, the song eventually went far beyond its typical structure, but before they took it there they explored all the ways they could play the blues within its structure. Barry was back on his guitar, and the three guitarists would trade leads amongst themselves and Jason, sometimes easing down to a shuffle, sometimes amping up higher and higher. Eventually they wound their way into some far out regions, landing in some different themed jams.
- Suddenly Luther slammed them back into the song itself and everyone got back to dancing before they brought it to a close.
- Unbroken Chain (PL)
- It’s always a treat seeing Phil play his song, and this was a great performance. He might be getting older, but he’s singing very well at this point in his life, especially when it comes to songs that are clearly dear to him.
- Having three guitars on this one also kind of works, because it’s a fairly dense song already, and it helps to be able to have one person basically just riffing on the different rhythms in the 11/4 and 15/4 sections to keep the song on track while blistering solos get laid on top of the shifting tempos.
- They drop the ball right at the start of the big jam, but immediately get it back together and don’t miss a step for the whole rest of the song. It sounds to me like at least two people on stage tried to play the album version of the song, and then remembered how much it gets stretched out live.
- This just might be the best version of this I’ve seen live. The first time I saw Phil with Larry and Teresa, in a lineup that was basically Furthur without Bob, might have been better, but this one is definitely going to stick in my head as a premium performance. The solos were once again traded back and forth effortlessly by the musicians on stage, and then they seamlessly slid back into the end of the song with Larry dominating the outro solo.
- Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning (TW)
- I thought maybe they were warming up for “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” from their tuning, but really should have seen this one coming!
- A classic for Larry and Teresa that they might have picked up from Hot Tuna when they helped out on one of their recent albums, this was once again a top notch performance.
- Teresa sang this one a little differently from when we saw them do it previously; she was still singing just as powerfully, but perhaps with a little more nuance or finesse.
- The song itself too felt a little more uptempo with a bit of a shuffle, as opposed to the more apocalyptic versions that have been played.
- Help on the Way (NB) >
- I typically pride myself in spotting a song just from the tuning or count-off that leads into it, but this makes two time this year that “Help on the Way” has snuck up on me! I was thinking “Ramble On Rose,” if anything, from the way they prepared for this song. At least the shock of one of your favorite songs sneaking up and biting you in the face is a pretty good feeling!
- Molo counted them off, and immediately the place erupted into cheers and a renewed vigor for dancing.
- For my tastes, they could have gone through the solo section another time or two (or seven), but they really nailed this song as well. Once again the abundance of guitars allowed for some creative mixes of rhythm and lead playing, propelling the song.
- There’s a DVD out there of Phil and Friends playing the Warfield in ‘04 with Joan Osborne (and Larry and John) where she sings this song, and I’ve always wanted to see a great female singer tackle it live, so I was thrilled to have Nicki singing this time. Like all the other musicians on stage, she stepped right up and killed this song.
- This was the longest “Slipknot!” I’ve seen, and while that doesn’t always mean it’s the best version of that song, in this case it certainly meant there was plenty of incredible jamming. They nailed the riffs at the beginning of the song and immediately dove into heavy guitar space.
- Larry started chopping at his guitar while Luther and Barry found some melodies to stretch out in the sonic playground Phil and John were laying down. Jason was on his Rhodes, which was a little harder to hear at the time than his other keyboards, but it comes through clearly on the soundboard.
- At one point they started doing the ascending riff that typically signals the departure from the jam and descends into the closing riffs, but after letting it build for a while Phil waved them off and they flew back into the stratosphere.
- Eventually they went back to that ascending line and followed through into the closing riffs. This time it kind of fell apart, but Barry and Phil kept it together enough for them to all pull into...
- Franklin’s Tower (PL)
- Yet another song that Phil loves to play, and he continued to sing very well.
- This is a perfect song to have too many guitars on, and like “Sugaree” is simple enough in its structure that you can lay down multiple layers of complex solos over it. While it would have been cool to see what a pedal steel would have brought to these three songs, Barry continued to impress us on his regular guitar.
- They finished the song with the traditional “Slipknot!” riff, and left the stage.
Phil eventually came out and gave his traditional Donor Rap. It was hard to make out at the time, but is clear in the soundboard. After we all turned to someone who we loved and loved us and told them we wanted to be organ donors (already am, don’t worry) the band came back out and prepared for a final surprise.
- Turn on Your Lovelight (LD & NB)
- While this isn’t unheard of as an encore, I once again did not see this coming.
- Definitely the best “Lovelight” I’ve seen live (well, technically better since I’ve only seen two). Luther continued to struggle with where lyrics were supposed to go, but it was clear that he and Nicki were having fun. And, more importantly, the interplay between all the musicians was incredible! They stretched this out for way longer than Bobby plays it nowadays, and filled every second of it with virtuosic leads.
- There wasn’t any of the rapping that Pig Pen was (in)famous for on this song, but I’d rather they just play than try to recreate something that only Pig could really do.
They brought the song and the night to an epic close, we cheered them off the stage, and the lights came back on. What a show! We hung out for a bit while the horde of people cleared out, and then eventually made our way to the car, and from there back to the hotel in Armonk. We talked about the show for a while in hushed tones, and then retired to bed to prepare ourselves for another show the next day!
Just a heads up, I may or may not post the second night’s review. I haven’t worked on it, and it’s already a month out. I would like to eventually, and to get a review of Dave’s Picks 20 out, but haven’t had much time to write lately. Stay tuned though, and feel free to leave thoughts and requests for topics in the comments section below!