While it’s true that the Grateful Dead name was retired in 1995 when legendary lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia passed away, the music has lived on through the various surviving members. Bob Weir’s Ratdog is actively touring, Mickey Hart and his various projects still interpret the material, and bassist Phil Lesh has done his part to keep the flame alive by enlisting various “Friends” over the past eight years to help him in his quest to reinvent the songs and the spirit of the Grateful Dead.
Lesh’s “Friends” have included a virtual who’s who of the jamband music community, including Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell from Phish, Paul Barrere and Billy Payne from Little Feat, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who currently play with The Allman Brothers, and, more recently, John Scofield and Ryan Adams. Though each incarnation of Phil Lesh and Friends has produced some memorable musical moments, it has always been tough to get a band together that really gelled.
“It’s been kind of a rollercoaster ride with lots of different musicians coming and going,” Phil Lesh told Listen Up Denver! during a recent interview from his home in Marin County, California. “We had ‘The Q’ [The Phil Lesh Quintet] which went for a couple of years, but it’s kinda hard in the final analysis to work around everyone’s schedules. As a result, we decided to try and get a band together that we could work with a while. All the musicians in the current line-up have given us a commitment that they will be available to work with us for about the next year or so. It is really a relief to have those commitments and now we can really focus on taking the music to another level.”
The men who have signed on to work with Lesh are his longtime drummer John Molo, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, singer-songwriter Jackie Greene and Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz. This line-up was debuted in late July at The Independent in San Francisco and drew rave reviews.
The bluesy Jackie Greene has stepped into the spotlight and is handling many of the vocal duties as well as playing guitar and keyboards. “He’s a real find, this guy,” gushed Lesh. “Last year I heard a cut from his album American Myth on the radio and I said, ‘Whoa, who is that?’ … And I went out and got his record. I absolutely loved it. Everything about it was just so wonderful, the tunes, the singing, the guitar playing, the arrangement and the way the guitars interlocked with one another and all these great little ideas that were bubbling in the background. It was just delightful. I said something about the album in an interview and two months later I got an email from Jackie … we got together and it just clicked and we invited him to join the band. Fortunately, he jumped at the opportunity, which was really gratifying.”
Steve Molitz is another relative youngster that Lesh has played with for a couple of one-off gigs over the past several years, but this is his first national tour with the bassist and it promises to be a special one. “Steve is a young guy with a whole different perspective ‘cause he comes out of that electronica jamband scene. I’ve been wanting to integrate that aspect of jamband music into my band for a long time and Steve is the ideal person because he can play the root stuff on the regular keyboards and jam out and yet when the moment is right he can do the really spacey, but still jammin’, kind of stuff,” Lesh said.
Lesh is an anomaly in many ways because he is still striving, at the age of 67, to grow and develop as a musician. He consciously brought Molitz and Greene into the band because “the kind of energy that Steve and Jackie bring to the band is so fresh and so exciting that the rest of us old guys kinda gotta get jacked up to that level,” he said. “It makes us play differently and that’s really what I am after with the band. I want to be inspired to play outside of my comfort zone and outside of the box that I have always been in with the Grateful Dead.”
In many ways, when Lesh returns to Colorado at the end of the month, he will be returning to a comfort zone in the form of Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Between the years of 1978 and 1984 the Grateful Dead played the famed venue 21 times and Lesh has returned many times as part of other projects. “Red Rocks seems to bring out the best in us, and we’ve got some special things up our sleeves for that gig,” he said. “We are going to be doing two full electric sets but in the middle we are going to do an acoustic set. Jackie’s music and his playing really lend themselves to that, so we are going to do the special acoustic set which we won’t be doing at The Fillmore.”
Check Out Phil and Friends If You Like:
- The Grateful Dead
- Jackie Greene
- Ryan Adams