Phil Lesh and Friends : Hammerstein Ballroom, NY NY 2/18/2006

Bassist Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead brought his rotating cast of characters to New York City this past week for a slew of highly anticipated outings. His first offering of shows at the Beacon Theatre featured two high profile guitarists dropping by (Warren Haynes and Trey Anastasio), but for the Hammerstein shows over the second weekend, Phil focused on his core group’s sound and kept the guests at bay. His current lineup includes a batch of road-tested veterans: Larry Campbell (guitar+more), Rob Barraco (keys+ vocals), Barry Sless (guitar, pedal steel), Jeff Sipe (drums), and Joan Osborne (vocals+percussion).

Phil recently commented in an email exchange with his fanbase that “chance music” would be the direction he is leaning towards. What is chance music? I’ll let Phil explain it:

"I’ve recently been wondering if Chance Music might be a key to the next step. In this music, elements are left to the performers’ discretion including the order of execution of sections of a piece, the possible exclusion of sections, and subjective interpretation of temporal and spatial pitch relations. This practice extends from Mozart’s time to the middle of the last century, with composers such as Cage, Boulez, and my teacher Luciano Berio."

Got it? No Darkstar Orchestra here. Phil wants to keep listeners guessing, recalling the spirit of early Grateful Dead shows, but in place of the endless jam, the music will be deconstructed and reformed nightly. Lesh uses onstage mics that only his performers can hear, to guide the band in directions that appear out of left field. With the new lineup he is leading more than ever and his bass was loud and certainly the focal instrument on Saturday night.

The first set started out with some good ol’ sawdust-on-the-floor barroom romps, "Dire Wolf" and "Peggy-O," respectfully. The six-piece lazily covered the crowd with the twinkling keys and shining voice of Rob Barraco, along with the violin playing of Larry Campbell, whose versatility was evident all night. Phil is the boss and makes the decision as to who sings what, but to bring aboard a vocalist like Joan Osborne and to not have her sing "Birdsong" is both wasteful and a poor decision. The structured jam that rocked out of "Birdsong" was the highlight of the show and really showcased Lesh’s ‘Chance Music’ direction. Sound flowed like rivers down a mountainside, changing with silent directions, rockabilly to blues via crunching breakdowns. Joan even flexed on the drum kit, switching seamlessly with Sipe before the voyage plowed into the roundabout sing-a-long of "The Weight."

Larry Campbell’s amphetamine fueled violin in "Sitting on Top of the World" caused the aged in attendance to feel young again, while the jam that followed bumped up eerie notes. It meandered in dark chords and was certainly forming "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" when the band immediately 180’d, crashing into the steam train known as "Viola Lee Blues." With glorious musical distractions a plenty, the group muscled through "Viola Lee" and ended the set with a shaky "Bertha."

A big bang, in the form of "St. Stephen" opened set two. A funked up riot, the Saint got the ballroom dancing as the band angled into "The Eleven," before the energy began to leak out into the frigid night. The progression of three slow numbers was simply misplaced in the heart of the second set. The first, "New Speedway Boogie" was smoldering and very effective, highlighting Joan’s vocals and Barraco’s organ. Then, when it seemed the fans were ready for a barnburner ("Shakedown Street" perhaps) or a psychedelic skyrocket (maybe a "Dark Star"), the band floundered in Space, then played a dull Ryan Adams tune titled, "Bartering Lines." While some fans were engaged by Joan’s vocals, most were simply wading through the sea of humanity towards the bar or the pisser. When "Death Don’t Have No Mercy" started, the energy level had been vanquished. "Death Don’t…" is a great song and again showcased Miss Osborne’s smoky sound, but three downers in a row was excessive. The set-closing "Help on the Way">"Slipknot!">"Franklins Tower" seemed rushed, with only the middle "Slipknot!" section getting creative attention.

The encore, a straight-out-of-the-’70s "Good Lovin’" was exciting, with Joan’s crooning and the band’s enthusiastic playing a sure sign that the downer segment should have been dispersed throughout the show, or better yet, discarded completely.

Having seen Phil in a variety of incarnations, it is always exciting to hear what will be toyed with and when the toying will commence. It’s obvious Lesh is louder then ever and placing no constraints on the music, and for fans of the Grateful Dead’s spirit, this is certainly a good thing. Tonight’s extended foray’s into the unknown yielded fine results with music that had an oddly Phish-like feel once the façade of the song was broken down. A fact that can be partially attributed to Jeff Sipe’s drumming reminiscent of Jonathan Fishman’s touch, light on bass drum and scattered, but still holding it down.

Sometimes your gamble pays off, and sometimes you bust. Tonight’s first set showed what the band was capable of but in the process pushed Joan to the side. Conversely the second set focused almost solely on Osborne’s vocals, a mix of these two throughout would have made for a more engaging show. The playing was superb and Phil certainly succeeded in keeping his audience guessing. Shaking things up with these talented musicians will only field positive results over time if they stay together and if the lineup changes again I would be anxious to see what comes next in Phil Lesh’s long strange trip.

Photos by Rod Snyder

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