I have had an admittedly fragile relationship with Phil and Friends shows over the years. After 138 Grateful Dead concerts, I loved the 1999 incarnation of Phil’s band with both Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks in the fold. However, I have found the subsequent units to be a little “noodly” for my taste. But last Saturday’s twin billing with Levon Helm’s band, which allowed me to return to the city in which I attended college, was too much to resist. Indeed, Rochester’s Highland Bowl is a bucolic band shell nestled right outside the city. It looked like the stage from Yellow Submarine and provided some of the best acoustics I have ever heard.
Levon Helm’s opening set, featuring some ragtime horns, provided the perfect soundtrack for this beautiful setting. At 68, Helm could be forgiven for mistakenly identifying the city as “Buffalo.” He led sweet renditions of Band staples "Ophelia," "Rag Mag Mama Rag" and "The Shape I’m In." Phil’s drummer John Molo joined in for the old Dead chestnut "Deep Elem Blues." I wasn’t surprised to hear "The Weight, " with the full Last Waltz intro as the set closer. However, I was expecting "Up On Cripple Creek" for an encore. However, a quick perusal of Levon’s other shows on the tour showed that he hasn’t been playing it.
Phil’s band immediately hooked the crowd with the obligatory "One More Saturday Night," featuring Jackie Greene on vocals. What followed was simply a kick-ass countrified one-two punch of "Cumberland Blues" and "Me and My Uncle." The former tune showcased some nice pedal steel and was over twelve minutes long. The latter had a nice jam in the middle that caused it to stretch to almost fifteen minutes. The remainder of the set was understandably a little more restrained but finished with a nice two-pack for veterans such as myself; "Operator" and "Cosmic Charlie."
At 68 years old himself, Phil seems comfortable to let some of the kids lead the way, although he did dedicate the second set opening "New Speedway Boogie" to a couple he had met at Starbucks that afternoon. He took over lead vocal duties on the "Cryptical Envelopment->Other One->Crpytical and Morning Dew." “Dew,” the most tender of Dead ballads, has never been a good match for Phil’s voice and this one suffered additionally from some technical problems. Perhaps this was why the climatic final jam was aborted. However, the band redeemed itself big time with a blazing "Franklin’s Tower" to close the show. This version had all the peaks that the spent crowd could handle and sent us all home with a smile on our faces. The "Truckin" encore was a nice sing-a-long which of course featured the lyrical shout out to Buffalo. Maybe this was what Levon Helm was thinking of?