Written by Brian Mundy…
Ryan Adams is an extremely talented songwriter. One can easily understand Phil Lesh’s admiration for the guy while listening to compositions like “Let It Ride” and “A Kiss Before I Go,” tunes that fit comfortably among Hunter/Garcia creations such as “Loser” and “Lazy River Road.” The feeling is somewhat mutual, it seems, because Adams is known to play “Wharf Rat” in his own sets. Also, the influence is obvious: for starters, the dude wrote a song for his first solo record called “Shakedown on 9th Street.”
Phil Lesh and Friends kicked off a small tour last night at the Beacon Theater, the first of eight shows in New York City. Speculation, as always, was rampant about possible friends this tour (“Dude, my brother told me Trey lives down the street”), and, having listened to most of Ryan Adams’ recorded output this year (three records, and they’re all great), I was hoping that I would get a chance to see Mr. Adams and Mr. Lesh pair up in a live setting. The thought of seeing Adams sing “Stella Blue” was truly exciting to me.
No such luck: Mr. Adams did not show up, but the band, which consists of Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan), Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit/Leftover Salmon, etc), Joan Osborne (“What if God …”), Barry Sless (Flying Other Brothers, David Nelson Band), and Rob Barraco (Zen Tricksters), played no less than four Ryan Adams songs. When the band opened with “New York New York” from Adam’s 2001 album Gold, people were a little confused but the energy of Mr. Barraco’s singing and the band’s enthusiasm quickly and effectively shook that feeling off of most of the dancing audience. The band was actually off to a rocking start and the excitement in the room had that oh-so-familiar feeling.
The band stayed focused for about five minutes on an uplifting Samson/Throwing Stones jam and then entered into the type of improvisation that often triggers meditations on the fine line between improvisatory exploration and laziness. This lasted a while. Eventually they made their way into “Playing in the Band”, and Joan Osborne confidently sashayed out to the front of the stage and started belting. My buddy and I agreed that she needed to be turned up. She sounded great all night and I’d pick her over Chris Robinson any day. Playin’ was never completed, and the jam was pretty good but, again, it meandered quite a bit, with Phil directing the band through different keys and feels, before landing on another Adams tune, “Cold Roses”. For those of you that have not heard this song, try to find it and check it out. It’s uncanny how easily this song could have been written in 1969 by Garcia/Hunter. The harmonies during the chorus were almost perfect. The tune was so nice, and so rocking. The band was really starting to gel at this point. They launched into “West LA Fadeaway”, which narrowly beats the “Lovelight” as the highlight of the first set, with Larry Campbell and Barry Sless both contributing concise, virtuosic, and ripping solos.
“No More Do I” was boring; that song could lose a verse or two and still be too long. “Love the One You’re With” was odd but the majority of the definitely-older crowd loved it and it really raised the energy level (I couldn’t help but wonder if the sentiment of the song had something to do with Ryan Adams’ absence). The band, particularly Joan and Jeff Sipe, managed to harness said energy and bring it home with a rollicking, sexy “Lovelight”. The set ended with meaningful contributions from everybody, yet the prognosis for the second set was undetermined; my friend and I agreed that the show, after a promising start, could go either way. Such is the way with Phil.
We thought we were going to get a Shakedown when they opened second set with a minor key jam, but it turned out to be a rollin’, very upbeat, and likeable “After Midnight”. Wow, okay. The guitar players really were starting to sync up and the prognosis was looking good. Barry Sless sounds like Jerry. It’s an approach that smartly borrows just enough to be familiar most of the time, but he is not afraid to blatantly copy every now and then, and most of the audience seemed to agree with that approach. Larry brings a whole new dimension to the band that was lacking with the oft-lauded Quintet pairing of Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes: sober-eyed, bluesy subtlety and extremely thoughtful phrasing. He can play fast, but he rarely does.
“Magnolia Mountain” is another winning composition off of Adams’ Cold Roses record. Joan sings it well, and it was tight, but the audience, including myself, wanted some bomb Dead material. The band delivered with an extremely well-executed one-two punch of “Bird Song” and “Unbroken Chain”. The “Bird Song” was a little too slow, but Phil’s vocals actually sounded good. “Dark Star” references abounded. The “Unbroken Chain” jam in the middle was completely off the hook.
Jeff Sipe’s drumming was momentous and I observed that, like Campbell vs. Haynes, his subtlety and smartly shifty playing is a welcome contrast to the steam locomotive approach of John Molo. Sipe strikes me as a drummer with a much broader palate, and he and Campbell contribute a layer of polish to the band that I really dig. After the momentous and snap-back-to-one playing of the whole band Phil wrapped the tune up and took a break from the Dead material by delivering “Rescue Blues”, also from Gold. At this point, and considering how good Joan sang it, I really don’t know how much Adams’ presence would have added or taken away from the evening. Phil then delivered what the audience wanted: a hugely fun “Good Lovin” that had all six members and the whole audience grinning like crazy. The peaks and valleys were all on-point and Sless and Campbell traded off like they’d been playing together for years. Sless’s playing is quite geometric; his right angles nicely contrast with Campbell’s slides and rounded dips. Good stuff.
Break, anticipation, then, whammo: Help-Slip-Franklin’s. I’ve always liked the way Barraco sings Help on the Way, and he is so comfortable with all of the Dead material it’s very easy to take his playing for granted. “Slipknot” sealed the deal for me: this lineup is awesome. They completely nailed it. Sipe gets MVP for bringing a remarkable sharpness to the Slipknot jam. Franklin’s was typically ebullient, and “Casey Jones” brought the house down.
The show was well-constructed from start to finish. Phil, as usual, played magnificently and he supported every player remarkably well. He and Sipe have an impressive level of communication going on already. Chalk one up for another great Phil and Friends lineup. I hope that, like the Q, this one sticks around for a while because the folks who dismiss a lineup like this because it doesn’t have any established (at least, in most jamband circles) heavyhitters are going to eventually come around.
New York New York (Barraco singing, RA tune)>
Sampson/Throwing Stones jam>
Playin’ In The Band> Jam>
Cold Roses (RA tune, Joan singing)
West LA Fadeaway (Joan)
No More Do I (Phil & Joan)> Jam>
Love The One You’re With (Joan)
Food Drive rap