Phil Lesh Reunites with Old Friends for a Good Time at The Cap

June 13  / Thursday
Words by Chad Berndtson Photos by Marc Millman and Dino Perrucci

The Phil Lesh & Friends moniker was technically used earlier, but 1999 was more or less when the Friends concept as we know and love it really got going — 20 years now (!) of Leshian adventure. Over the years, there were a handful of lineups — the so-called Q above all — that sustained more than a tour or two, but Phil Lesh has long since committed to using the Friends for an approach he once described as akin to “chance music,” where the endless variability of personnel adds new, unpredictable and exciting dimensions that make new connections and the potential for magic out of well-known, well-traveled and much-played material. So many interesting and varied players have spent time on Phil's stage, and many of them return. Sometimes it’s the new-to-Phil musicians that add the spice; sometimes, it’s longtime Phil collaborators coming together in different combinations that make things that much more potent or entrancing.

This lineup, which set up for two nourishing nights at the Cap, was loaded with history. You had Rob Barraco and John Molo, both from the Q and many other Friends installments, who know this music and more importantly, how to converse in its tricky tongues, like second nature. You had Grahame Lesh, representing the younger generation, ever more seasoned and confident as a singer, player and presence after many years now playing with his dad in the Terrapin Family Band and driving his own accomplished group, Midnight North. And most of all you had the wizardly Jorma Kaukonen, one of the few musicians who can enter this ensemble and play with Phil as a peer, and who was around alongside the storied beginnings of the Grateful Dead as part of the Jefferson Airplane and then Hot Tuna — a keeper of the flame and author of a still-in-progress history book that’s as long and interesting as Phil’s own.

Tuesday’s show eased in to an identity, one of easygoing, folksy charm that slid in and out of bluesadelic exploration. Early on came “Here Comes Sunshine,” “Cold Rain and Snow,” “Loose Lucy” and “Bird Song” to offer some equable jamming; even snap-to-it tunes like “Alabama Getaway,” with a gnarly, bass-led break-down-and-jam-back-up segment, and the Jorma-sung “Operator,” played straight but with a back-porch kind of feel, and an unhurried “Smokestack Lightning,” had the same homey vibe. With five players, the ensemble still felt roomy — not to be confused with spare — and the musicians relished the space without rushing to load it.

In the second set the fivesome started to deepen that identity, rounding off some of its edges and scuffing up others. They moved fluidly through an aggressive suite that, emerging from a swirly “Playin in the Band,” gave us “All Along the Watchtower,” “Viola Lee Blues,” a gripping “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “New Speedway Boogie,” before letting the darker tones give and returning to a more blissed-out, but still down-home run of tunes to close, including “The Wheel,” and, in a nice surprise, the ambling, late-era Dead tune “Liberty.”

Phil himself seemed in fine fettle throughout, singing with passion on “Cold Rain,” “Bird Song” and the encore of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Jorma picked his spots and stayed laconic — just enough vocals to make them felt (that “Death Don’t”!), just enough guitar that he could direct the energy of the band without overwhelming it. Grahame, Barraco and Molo each pushed the ensemble, exclaiming when needed but without betraying the evening’s overall homespun feel. (There may not be a more devoted servant of this music than Barraco, who, when he’s feeling it and running across that sparkling piano, has enough energy for an entire orchestra.)

Wednesday’s show was limber and sinewy, the band more comfortable with itself after feeling its way into action the night before. The arcs of each set followed a similar pattern as the previous night: folksy good time jamming occasionally yielding to smoldering blues in the first, more expansive adventuring in the second. What fun to hear Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow,” a Jorma-sung “Friend of the Devil” a loping “Franklin’s Tower,” and an exceptional “Mississippi Half-Step.” At the heart of the second set came a full indulgence of Hot Tuna-style blues and gospel, with “I Am the Light of This World” and “Good Shepherd” appearing before a showpiece jam suite of “The Other One > “Eyes of the World > Scarlet Begonias.” This set, out of the four sets in two nights, felt right in the center of the Airplane, Tuna and Dead Venn diagram — crucial elements of each, but different of any one of them.

As some eagle-eyed Phil & Friends fans have already pointed out, Wednesday’s show was nearly identical in setlist to one played the last time Jorma was officially in a PLF lineup, in June 1999, nearly 20 years ago to the day. It seemed like a knowing, very Leshian wink — the weight of history is ever present, but there’s still a lot of world to see. Here's to the next adventure.