Phil Lesh & Friends
February 10, 2006
Beacon Theater, NYC
I’ll begin this synopsis by stating that I have nothing but love for the man known as Phil Lesh. Always my favorite member of the Dead, I sped through his (very well written) autobiography in three days, his clunky/brilliant basslines are the primary reason that I hold 1973-74 versions of “Eyes of the World” in higher esteem than any others from the Dead’s storied history, and anyone who can’t find it in their heart to love “Box of Rain” is simply devoid of a soul.
All this being said, its highly questionable as to whether or not I’d have attended this past weekend’s Phil Lesh and Friends gig had by girlfriend’s father not offered me a free ticket. I appreciate that Phil continues to maintain a heavy touring schedule because he still loves to play, and finds ways to use his gigs for philanthropic purposes apart from the music. But this doesn’t change the fact that excepting a surprisingly potent summer 1998 performance from The Other Ones, every Dead spin-off act I’ve witnessed has been a glorified covers band operating at annoyingly slow tempos. And unfortunately, last Friday’s performance fit this description a little too neatly.
The only members of this night’s version of Phil Lesh and Friends that I had been familiar with prior to the performance were longtime Phil keyboard man Rob Barraco and vocalist Joan Osborne, who the majority of Deadheads seem to dislike for some unknown reason because she’s extremely good at what she does. The septet was rounded out by drummer Jeff Sipe, and guitarists Barry Sless and Larry Campbell. Conspicuously absent from the proceedings was prolific alt-country wunderkind, and new Lesh best buddy Ryan Adams, who was a member of Phil and Friends as recently as the Fall/Winter of 2004. Adams once commented in an interview with Pitchforkmedia that Lesh personally told him that his 2005 Cold Roses album ‘means a lot to me,’ and damn if Phil wasn’t kidding (more on that later).
True to form, the “Hell I Still Love You, New York” tour kicked off with a Ryan Adams-less rendition of the latter’s “New York, New York”; the song from which the tour takes its title. With Rob Barraco on vocals, the opening tune was actually considerably upbeat and well-rehearsed, despite the fact that it was clearly evident that most of the audience was unfamiliar with the song. Unfortunately, said energy levels and/or tight playing were the exception to the evening’s norm. “New York, New York” was chased by what would become the default; seven minutes of some of the most aimless jamming imaginable; a slow moving morass akin to an open dress rehearsal that mercifully ended when the friends somehow decided to begin “Playin’ in the Band.”
After a version of “Playin’” that brought to mind how a bar-mitzvah band might attempt to tackle the tune, more witless soloing wound down to a riff that I, though I’m guessing few others, found instantly familiar. Phil and Friends were taking a stab at the title track from Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses, with Joan Osborne supplying the vocals. I found this enjoyable because the heavily American Beauty-influenced Cold Roses was easily one of my favorite records of 2005, and the performance was strong. However, I think the old-timer next to me spoke for the majority of the audience when he proclaimed, “wait, is this another Ryan Adams song? And Ryan Adams is nowhere onstage? What’s Phil’s problem?!” (fair enough, but still way better than that anemic version of “Playin”). The rest of set one consisted of a version of “West L.A. Fadeaway” virtually indistinguishable from the tune from Phil’s solo record (!) that it segued into, a Stephen Stills song, and an Osborne led “Lovelight” that curiously featured the same tempo as “West L.A. Fadeaway.” The band members seldom seemed to be on the same page, the crispest tunes were those penned by Ryan Adams, and weren’t the Grateful Dead supposed to be faster when they only had one drummer in the mid-70’s?
One 55-minute setbreak later, the second set did little to alter the general malaise. Things began with a version of J.J Cale’s “After Midnight” that utilized the same groove/tempo/chords as “West L.A. Fadeaway.” This actually found its way into a reasonably tight, spaced-out groove suggesting a “Dark Star” segue, which would have been a cheap move, but nobody would have complained. Instead, hold your breath, another Ryan Adams song, this time the leadoff track from Cold Roses, “Magnolia Mountain.” The evening had now taken on a feeling of high comedy, made even sillier by “Rescue Blues”, the fourth and final Adams song of the evening that chased a surprisingly tight and well-rehearsed “Unbroken Chain”; unquestionably the evening highlight. You could hear a collective sigh of relief from the audience after “Good Lovin’” apparently brought things to a close, only to be replaced by a groan when “Help on the Way” kicked in. In Phil’s defense, the classic “Help>Slipknot!>Franklin’s” triptych had been clearly rehearsed ahead of time, and was pleasant if only because it wasn’t another bout of molasses slow jamming (or Ryan Adams).
On one hand, Phil deserves credit for attempting to skirt the ‘nostalgia act’ tag by infusing his shows with high degrees of improvisation as well as songs that a sizable portion of his audience might not be familiar with. But the sad reality is that he can’t have it both ways; nobody is paying upwards of fifty bucks to hear Phil run through the Ryan Adams songbook, and certainly not with a group whose concept of improvisation consists of aimless soloing over a solitary tempo. A friend of my girlfriend’s dad (and 65 Dead show veteran) called the performance “painful.” I was considering leaving in the middle of the second set. But most notable was the commentary from the dude who had complained to me about the large number of Ryan Adams songs two hours earler; “yeah, I’m still gonna buy tickets for Bobby in April. At least you know what you’re gonna get with that dude.”
-David M. Goldstein