reCAP :: Phil Lesh & Friends :: 2016.10.31
Personality is both the question and the answer when it comes to a Phil Lesh & Friends ensemble. What type of band personality will an audience experience, and will it revolve around a few dominant flavors or coalesce into a core, neither definite nor inchoate? And by the time it's all over, will we have been revealed to or plunged deeper into mystery, wondering if, with a little bit more time and attention, it would be clearer what a certain band assemblage was "all about," and does it even need to be clearer?
This is what Phil brings to his always-shifting Friends project these days. No matter who's involved -- and no matter how many times you think you've seen every progression, curveball, curiosity and musical trope associated with this creative organization of Grateful Dead music -- you're bound to walk away with at least one, and often many more, moments of "right here, this personality, and only right now." There's consistency lost in that approach -- chance music by definition means taking chances, not all of them resulting in good -- but it sets a thrilling course for adventure..
Phil Lesh & Friends opted on this night for spooked Americana, itself not a surprise given the heavily roots- and blues-flavored pedigrees of its players and the night being, y'know, Halloween, but flush with choice "only right now" moments all the same. They found their wild howling monster selves early, climbing up the lilting "Cryptical Envelopment" straight into "The Other One" and then a coursing "Caution" with metallic sparks flying off its scraped edges. From there, it was a mixing progression of ominous roots, mostly by other people ("Wade in the Water," "Bad Moon Rising," the inevitable "Werewolves of London," "This Wheel's On Fire" "Death Don't Have No Mercy," "I Ain't Superstitious") with big, parabolic Grateful Dead jams, most awesomely in that opening "Other One > Caution" progression and then at the beginning of Set 2, a crusher "Viola Lee Blues" made sweet-heavy with three female voices.
Each of the ensemble members has played enough with Phil, in a variety of contexts, to understand the notion of listening first then finding the moments of injection. Few longtime Phil associates so nimbly move among the sonic layers like Larry Campbell and Jason Crosby, sturdy as always. Fewer still spew psychedelic blues like Luther Dickinson, who over a few years now of occasional Friends collaboration has become more comfortable with the music and where his fire-in-the-pumpkin-patch picking is best expressed. John Molo is and remains Phil's most reliable anchor, finding and pushing the old man into his supplest pockets, while still willing to be surprised and have to switch gears -- he stays on his toes. All said, however, I'll hand the extra spice award to Teresa Williams and Nicki Bluhm, both marvelously charismatic singers and vocal storytellers who can shade toward heavenly gospel or night-filled-with-terrors rock and roots with just a few clicks to the left or right. They owned the night, scary or not.
Set 1: Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One > Caution > Wade in the Water, Bad Moon Rising, When I Go Away, Werewolves of London*^ Set 2: Viola Lee Blues*^ > Shakedown Street*^, This Wheel's On Fire, Mystery Train, Mountains of the Moon > Death Don't Have No Mercy, St. Stephen > Rosemary > I Ain't Superstitious E: Sympathy for the Devil * w/Grahame Lesh, guitar/vocals ^ w/Elliott Peck, vocals