Metroland Concert Review- Phil Lesh and Friends
Albany, NY, 12/4/05
by Glenn Weiser

Kick Out Some of the Jams

Phil Lesh and Friends
Washington Avenue Armory, Albany, NY
Dec. 4, 2005                             
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“This is going to suck lemons big time,” carped Bear, a regular on a Grateful Dead Internet discussion forum. Phil Lesh, the Dead’s brilliant and unconventional bassist, and his Shadow of the Moon tour was coming to the Armory with jazz guitarist John Scofield subbing for former Dylan axman Larry Campbell, who had a prior commitment with Emmylou Harris on that evening. “Scofield can’t jam worth a damn, never could,” Bear groused on.

Bigger problems than a mismatch in the lineup loomed, though. The week before the show, a faction within the Grateful Dead organization evidently led by Bob Weir ordered more than 3,000 downloadable Dead shows removed from the popular Internet Archive Web site, igniting resentment among Deadheads and calls for a boycott of all Dead-related merchandise and concerts. Lesh quickly issued a statement distancing himself from the crackdown, explaining that it had occurred without his knowledge.

None of that seemed to matter as Jamband Nation mobbed the Washington Avenue Armory to hear the 65-year-old Lesh, Scofield, Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson, drummer John Molo, keyboardist Mookie Siegel and guitarist-pedal steel player Barry Sless deliver a virtuosic, if not sometimes vacuous show, drawn largely from the Dead’s early catalogue and heavily laced with “space”—nebulous interludes when the music hung on an unchanging chord and took on the quality of a Jackson Pollock painting. Lesh has said the Dead’s first 10 years were their best; none of the songs performed—including covers from the Band, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, and the Beatles—were written after 1976.

Robinson led off with the Band’s “Just Another Whistle Stop,” his strong singing showing a Southern-rock influence. Barry Sless followed Robinson’s vocals with Jerry Garcia-inspired riffing over the shuffle groove, after which the group abandoned their harmonic moorings and took the first of several forays into space. This was surprising, given that a typical Grateful Dead show consisted of a first set of mostly conventional songs with an extended space jam with drum solos reserved for the middle of the second set. And as it turned out, Lesh’s heavy tilt toward the amorphous proved the night’s biggest shortcoming—there was just too much of it, especially if you were not “dozin’. ”

Robinson sang “Loose Lucy” next, and then Lesh took over for “Friend of the Devil” as Sless switched to the pedal steel, which, because of the poor acoustics of the cavernous brick hall, was barely audible. The group started off in a slow, sedate groove and gradually raised it to a trademark Dead crescendo.

The worst mishap of the night occurred at the end of Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” when Robinson brought the song lurching to a premature halt and an animated Lesh was seen afterward talking to him away from the mic and waving his finger at him in apparent anger. Too bad: Just moments before, John Scofield’s fluid, rootsy soloing had proved that the jazzer had adapted to jam-band music with ease.

The band continued through a sequence of Dead favorites, including the Appalachian ballad “Cold Rain and Snow,” an iridescent “Bird Song,” Sippy Wallace’s blues classic “I Know You Rider,” a swaggering “U.S. Blues,” and a Dead rarity, “The Stranger (Two Souls Lost in Communion).” “You Got to Hide Your Love Away” marked the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s tragic murder. After a rushed, heavy-handed “All Along the Watchtower,” the group closed with “Midnight Hour” (finally allowing Siegel to strut his tasty, gospel-tinged stuff), and encored with “Not Fade Away.”

For the most part, when Lesh and his talented friends played recognizable music, they were wonderful. But all too often one found oneself inside a kaleidoscope of glittering, abstract tones waiting for the next song to begin. Remember, jam freezes when it’s left out in space.

Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2005 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  


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