reCAP :: Phil Lesh & Friends :: 2014.05.29

May 31  / Saturday
Written By: Bill Clifford

Midway through 2014, it certainly appears as though planned residences on both the west and east coast, are working wonderfully for 74-year-old Phil Lesh. The Grateful Dead bassist returned to the east coast this week for a series of dates that included a Thursday & Friday night run here at the Cap, sandwiched between two gigs at Central Park, with his always rotating cast of musicians compromising Phil Lesh & Friends.

Lesh brought several regular "Friends" along this tour, including young gun drummer Joe Russo and guitarist John Kadlecik; other friends also touring with Lesh were jazz keyboardist John Medeski and jazz guitarist John Scofield, both who've been somewhat regulars with Lesh throughout the past year. And speaking of Regulars... Ross James (guitars) and Jordan Levine (percussion), of the Terrapin Crossroads band Ross James and The Regulars, also were brought along for this east coast jaunt. Most interesting however was the last minute addition of Wilco guitarist Nels Cline for the two nights at The Capitol. Warren Haynes supplanted Kadlecik in the Central Park gigs, but alas was absent on this Thursday night gig at The Cap. If you’re counting, that’s a lot of guitarists. James performed for the first set while Cline substituted for him in the second set.

Lesh and company began the first set with a graceful smile towards the crowd as they sauntered on stage, picking up their instruments and moving right into “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”. Kadlecik took the lead vocals on the Jarry Garcia tune, but gave way to Lesh as they moved into his “Pride of Cucamonga”. James added another voice to the mix as they segued through “New Minglewood Blues” and back into “Pride.” The highlight of the first set came as Kadlecik took lead on “Ramble on Rose”, with Kadlecik evoking the best years of Jerry Garcia with a fluid and clear vocal delivery, and the energy radiating from the band returned by the audience with a sing-a-long chorus. The Slow, dirge like drawl of “Here Comes Sunshine” featured 4 part vocal harmonies, including Russo behind the kit. In contrast, Lesh closed out the first set with “Box Of Rain”, a long time fan favorite that once again had the crowd singing along in unison.

Like most bands of their ilk, The Grateful Dead had a long history of out performing themselves in the second set. That hasn’t changed with time, and tonight’s second set seemed – at least to this fan – to be a much higher energy affair than the first. Opener, “China Cat Sunflower”, set the bar high, with Kadlecik reaching for high notes with a deft vocal dexterity and guitarist Cline stepping right in with the artsy like guitar fills that have made him such a integral lead guitarist for Wilco. A long and winding run began with the classic “Dark Star”, with Lesh leading the band with resonating low-end bass melodies and gruff but seasoned vocals. Cline really seemed to find himself in a comfort zone very quickly and had a nice musical rapport with Kadlecik. Moving through “Scarlet Begonias”, there were enthusiastic smiles and nods in each other’s direction as they traded solos. Gazing upwards at the theater’s dome like ceiling as Kadlecik sang the words, “…or a touch of the blues,” one was amazed to see a blue and gold paisley projection that morphed through reds and whites and blues.

Closing out the salvo the band came back around for the atmospheric ambiance of “Dark Star”, which saw loose, jazzy improve from Medeski and Sco, who really seemed to be in his element, bending and bleeding stretched notes from his guitar. “Fire on the Mountain” brought the set to a jaunty close, with the audience once again singing along in unison with the band, and drawing a huge ovation as the band left off stage. Retuning for an encore, Kadlecik lead the band through the Hunter/Garcia penned anthem of personal freedom, “Liberty”, as the band gracefully bowed to the fans before leaving the stage.

A few general observations; sometimes less is more. Joe Russo has proven time and again that he’s the most versatile and dexterous drummer on the jamband scene. While the addition of Levine on bongos and cymbals and other small instruments was nice, at times it seemed to take away from the astonishing boom band sound Russo draws from his simple drum kit. And, while James has a deft understanding of the catalogue of The Dead, he seemed to be somewhat at odds with Kadlecik at times in terms of who was to play what guitar line. Cline on the other hand, came in with far less experience with The Dead’s classic cannon, and instead concentrated on adding his own parts and atmospheric fills, which seemed to complement the melodies. And lastly, “We Will Survive!” Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir have gone to great lengths further the legacy of the Grateful Dead, by introducing new blood to their musical lineage and continuing to tour in one form or another. As they do, they have introduced the music of the band to countless younger fans, which are showing up and joining the older generation of Dead Heads more and more each show. The Cap was about three quarters full tonight – with younger and older fans alike – which made for a wonderfully pleasant concert experience. Walking around the floor or the mezzanine and experiencing the music from multiple views and sound vantage points really gave a wonderful chance to hear and see some of the improv music scene’s most talented musicians perform in a spectacular theater that was made for this kind of experience.