Monday, June 4, 2018

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead? 1: Phil Lesh

The profile that follows was originally published in the weekly online magazine ‘Gonzo’, issue #222.  It was the first of a series of pieces I wrote for the magazine concerning former core members of the Grateful Dead, taking a look at their musical activities following the demise of the original band with Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.

I felt that a lot of former ‘Deadheads’, especially here in the UK, had tended to lose interest in these guys’ activities, which seemed a shame as all four of them had, each in their own way, edged into new and worthwhile musical territories.  Obviously, those like me who did keep track could use the internet to keep abreast of their activities and access some of the music.  But for anyone who hadn’t bothered, I thought a few pointers towards selected highlights might be enough to rekindle interest.

My own interest is not so much on the live performance of the band’s old material, which – understandably in many ways – all four of them tend to fall back on.  Not that the reinterpretation of an old song hasn’t on many occasions wowed me, of course.  But it’s what they have done that is new and exploratory that excites me and on which I tend mainly to focus.  

                                            Image result for phil lesh
                                                             A Garland of Pearls

                            The post 1995 career of former Grateful Dead bassist, Phil Lesh.

“We treat it as a repertoire.  In Grateful Dead terms, that means every performance can be different.  All versions of the songs are true, just like a fairy tale,” said Phil Lesh in 2009 of the many songs he has been performing throughout his working life as a musician.  He was, at that time, engaged in a new band project with former Dead member Bob Weir, Furthur, which was to be his main focus for another three or four years.

The ‘long strange trip’ did not end with the death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and the disbandment of the Grateful Dead in 1995, but for Lesh it took a little while to regain velocity.  There were serious financial problems facing the organisation that had grown around the band, and Lesh himself had contracted hepatitis C, culminating in 1998 with a liver transplant that saved his life.  Although he’d been involved initially with the band’s first attempt to regroup as ‘The Other Ones’ in 1998, he’d withdrawn from the line-up after the release of their one official album, a two CD live set, ‘The Strange Remain’.

Upon his recovery he began to develop the idea that was to become ‘Phil Lesh and Friends’.  He had become aware that the ‘repertoire’ was being adopted by many other musicians, who not only played Grateful Dead songs but used them as a springboard for improvisation, in the same spirit as the Dead had done.  The idea was to play with these musicians in a fluid, ever-changing line-up, seeking fresh approaches to the Dead’s songs and also taking on board other material: tunes he’d long wished to play, along with those brought in by his ever-changing musical partners.

In his 2005 autobiography, ‘Searching for the Sound’, Lesh said of this concept:  “As a bandleader, I like nothing better than to plan shows in which I can string songs and improvisations together thematically, like a garland of pearls, and then encourage the musicians to step outside their standard way of thinking and play – completely in the context of the moment.  I continue to seek out multiple musical partners, in a quest for that elusive chemistry that comes and goes as it wishes.”  It was to prove a fertile inspiration and has continued to this day.

One of his first close and continuing colleagues in PL&F was Steve Kimock, a guitarist whose calibre was established over many years with his own band Zero.  Lesh's initial interest in working with Kimock had been consolidated when the guitarist had played with The Other Ones.  However, despite the bassist’s claim that he would always work with Kimock, that partnership lasted for only a year or so and the two have not played together again as far as I know.

Which was a shame as Kimock’s fluid and versatile guitar work wove elegantly with Lesh’s melodic and ever inventive bass lines, as can be heard particularly well on soundboard recordings of some of the first PL&F gigs, available for download on the Live Music Archive website.  For three nights at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre they joined forces with Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell of the band Phish, plus drummer John Molo.  They established their territory with a 33 minute Viola Lee Blues, and the stratospheric impro continued through all three shows.  They delved into the Dead repertoire including numbers long since abandoned in the Garcia years such as ‘Alligator’ and ‘Mountains of the Moon’.  To these they added Dylan covers, songs from Phish’s repertoire plus one of Kimock’s, and an unexpected rendition of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’.  As a statement of intent, those gigs stand tall.

More line-ups followed in hot succession.  Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna/Airplane fame, UK keyboard/bass man Pete Sears and others within a month or so (official release ‘& Love Will See You Through’ – a double live highlights set).  Then came collaborations with the wonderful David Nelson Band, jam bands String Cheese Incident, Moe and Zen Tricksters, Little Feat, Merl Saunders and many more.  Lesh is, I think, an ethical and magnanimous sort of a gent (he has made a point of including a personally delivered organ donor appeal at every gig he’s played since 1998, not to mention his part in setting up the charitable Rex and Unbroken Chain Foundations) and in those days was happy to allow free soundboard recordings onto the internet.  They are well worth tracking down.

By 2001 it looked like the line up might be turning into something more fixed.  Lesh had begun a long lasting musical relationship with ex Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule guitarist, the mighty Warren Haynes.  This version of PL&F, sometimes referred to as ‘The Quartet’, was rounded out by guitarist Jimmy Herring (Jazz is Dead), keyboard man Rob Barraco (Zen Tricksters) and then consistent drummer John Molo.  They developed some fairly standard sets and began to come up with new material including collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.  A surprise studio recorded album appeared in 02, ‘There and Back Again’.  There’s a strong set of melodic and vital material to be found on this album, and it’s one of my few regrets as regards PL&F that Lesh seems to have lost faith in these fine songs.  They are rarely if ever performed now, even when ‘The Q’ occasionally reunite.

In 2003 came the first incarnation of ‘The Dead’ as Lesh linked up once more with Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart, bringing Haynes, Herring and Barraco with him.  Something of the spirit of PL&F seemed to pervade this version of the band.  New material, interesting covers (‘Cortez the Killer’, ‘Eight Miles High’, ‘Milestones’) and GD rarities kept their sets less predictable, along with guest appearances by the likes of Steve Winwood and Willie Nelson.  They even got back together with Bob Dylan at one point.  Deadheads seem often to look down on these reunions, but personally I still find a lot to enjoy in live recordings from this period.  The addition of quality singer Joan Osborne at this time rang the changes still further for the good.

As both ‘The Q’ and the Dead went their separate ways in 04, PL&F reverted to its original concept and line ups varied throughout the next three or four years.  Lesh formed new links, many of which have continued on occasion to this day, with musicians such as jazz guitarist John Scofield, former Black Crowe Chris Robinson, singer songwriter Jackie Greene and musical couple Larry and Teresa Campbell – former sidekicks to Levon Helm at his Woodstock home based ‘rambles’.  Whilst I continue to applaud Lesh’s ever welcoming spirit, I did start to find some of these collaborations less appealing personally.

At this time another problem began to emerge for me in my appreciation of this music.  Not only was I listening to the PL&F recordings, but also some of Bob Weir’s Ratdog and a whole bunch more jam bands covering Grateful Dead songs.  Quite a lot of them were beginning to wear out for me.  No matter how well played, no matter how many fine instrumental interludes they contained, I was getting more than my fill of ‘Sugaree’, ‘Ramble on Rose’ et al.  Every version may be different, but the words and the core tune do tend to stay the same most of the time.  My tendency is now to look for the non-GD covers, the pieces the other musicians bring, the occasional newly written songs, and skip the rest – with some exceptions.  I no longer pay the same close attention I once did.

I found this to be the case with the second and shorter incarnation of The Dead in 2009 (though not without highlights) and the early days of the aforementioned Furthur.  In 2010 new songs did actually begin to creep into the latter’s repertoire, enough I reckon for them to have made a decent album.  I particularly enjoyed the ones newly written with Robert Hunter such as ‘Seven Hills of Gold’, ‘Big Bad Blues’ and ‘Colors of the Rain’.  There are some downloadable live versions of these excellent songs, but vocals tend often to be lost in the mix.  Studio versions of those three and a good few more would have been welcome.

It was, I read in one interview, Lesh himself who was least keen to record those versions.  I accept there is little income to be made from making albums, these days, and to a lesser extent Lesh’s argument that the songs are ever evolving, there are no ‘definitive’ versions.  But the songs can’t evolve if they aren’t played, can they?  To be fair, one survived – in more recent line ups, Lesh has repeatedly revisited ‘The Mountain Song’.  The origins of this one do go back to the early 70s and the sessions for Paul Kantner’s ‘Planet Earth Rock’n’Roll Orchestra’ project.  It can be heard as a ‘round’ on recordings bootlegged from that era with the singing of Garcia, Grace Slick and David Crosby amongst others.  It’s been rewritten since then by various folk at various times, Lesh’s version using lyrics written by Robert Hunter and arranged by his son Brian.  A stirring and lovely song.  Thanks for at least keeping that one alive, Phil.

After Furthur played its last gig, Lesh again went his own way.  He and his wife Jill had, around this time, set up a restaurant cum music venue in San Rafael, California, called Terrapin Crossroads – which, in some ways, was the realisation of a Grateful Dead dream project from somewhere back in the 1990s.  Although Lesh’s line ups still play some concert hall and festival venues, he has cannily used the premises to bring the music home, rather than keep it on the move.  Inspired in part by Levon Helm’s barn venue and the ‘rambles’ there, Lesh hosts jam bands aplenty, along with his own continuing projects.  These now include new assemblies involving his now grown and well musical sons, Brian and Grahame, such as the Terrapin Family Band.  A loose collective of mostly younger musicians play in these bands, with and without Lesh on bass.  One that has taken my interest is ‘Communion’ in which he does participate.  Although they started with GD repertoire pieces they have, on their occasional appearances, brought in some exciting new songs and well rearranged covers.  A refreshing take on the classic West Coast rock sound, in my opinion. 

PL&F at Terrapin largely concentrated, over a period of 3 or 4 years, on reproducing entire Grateful Dead shows or albums from the 60s onwards, a venture in which, for reasons established already, I had little interest.  Now and again, however, the excitement returns.  A concert in 2015 featured among the guests, notable and veteran jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and on drums, Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin and Wood.  Although they did stick mainly to material from the repertoire, Frisell and Martin brought enough freshness and vitality to the jams to entirely overcome my ennui.  Another highlight from that period was a shorter set at the Lockn’ Festival featuring a three lead guitar line up of Warren Haynes, the David Nelson Band’s Barry Sless and none other than Carlos Santana.  Tasty.

That year also saw the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary and the surviving original members’ five ‘final’ shows, augmented by Trey Anastasio, keyboard player Jeff Chimenti and associate band member Bruce Hornsby.  A much heralded and multi-million dollar event, I’m sure it gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure but for me the ennui returned almost if not quite full on.  I’ve listened to all the shows and there are some nice versions of many of the songs, for sure.  The jams are pleasant, though for me lack the excitement of the Anastasio/Kimock pairing back in 1999.  The only bits that seem to hit new territory on the whole are the drums/space interludes.  Of the shows, the most interesting I found was the first, in which they played a set of entirely 1960s material.  Whilst I would probably prefer to go back and hear a Dead set that was actually recorded in the 60s, some of this worked well for me.  I suspect that Lesh had a lot to do with the choice.  As mentioned he’s been responsible for reviving long unplayed songs from this period, and at one point they even assay one of the more ‘out there’ numbers: ‘What’s Become of the Baby?’

To many people’s surprise, Weir, Kretzmann and Hart elected to continue working together after this event, bringing in guitarist John Mayer and others, under the name Dead and Company.  Lesh declined to join them.  Reaching his mid 70s he was understandably tired of relentless touring.  His current projects are, besides, probably of greater interest.  An occasional appearance with his former colleagues is, I would think, not out of the question.  But for me, such excitement and interest as I maintain will centre on Terrapin Crossroads and its community of musicians.  This would, to use a bit of 21st century jargon, appear to be a ‘hub’ of some considerable creativity.  Whilst I shall continue to avoid the songs of which I am weary, I intend to keep an eye and if at all possible an ear on whatever emerges that is experimental, adventurous and new.  And for that, again, thanks Phil.

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