On the occasions that Bob Weir and Phil Lesh performed as a legitimate duo the concert attained some of its more transcendent peaks.
By Scott McLennan
It’s a bit of a misnomer to call Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s brief run of spring shows together the “Bobby & Phil Duo Tour,” since the two were rarely on stage together alone when they performed Wednesday at the Boch Center Wang Theatre in Boston.
During the sprawling two-set concert, drummer Wally Ingram frequently kept the beat and — during the entire second set — multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and singer Teresa Williams performed alongside the Grateful Dead founders.But when Weir and Lesh did play as a legitimate duo the concert attained some of its more transcendent peaks.Click To Tweet The capital “H” history that these two men share—all the joys, sorrows, and tensions harvested through 50-plus years of making music and building an iconic rock ’n’ roll legacy—powered inspired performances of “Me and My Uncle,” Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and the traditional “Deep Elem Blues.”
Weir conjured fluid, colorful parts from an acoustic guitar, while Lesh displayed dizzying dexterity on his six-string electric bass, covering both lead and rhythm lines in the performances. Lesh and Weir perfectly played off of each other’s idiosyncratic styles, conversing, really, with the easy predictive flow that comes with the telepathy generated by a still-relevant long term partnership.
The concert at the Wang was the first of a two-night stand in Boston. Lesh and Weir already completed a pair of shows in New York City (where they were joined one night by Phish’s Trey Anastasio). Next is bringing the show to Chicago for two nights. The duo has had Ingram along for the whole ride so far; the identities of other musicians who join in are not announced in advance.
After this, presumably, Weir goes back to playing in Dead and Company with original Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and blues-pop guitarist John Mayer, and Lesh will continue to perform with a revolving cast of family and friends. Lesh and Weir have appeared on stage together a handful of times since the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts — which were meant to be the last time the core (four) surviving members of the Grateful Dead would play together. Lesh has not performed in Boston since 2013, when he and Weir brought their Furthur project to the city for the final time before the group disbanded. So these concerts carry the imprimatur of being something special; Wednesday’s show lived up to the expectations.
As “the duo,” Weir and Lesh have decided to stick to staples in the Grateful Dead songbook, paying homage to Jerry Garcia by including many of the guitar visionary’s songs in the concerts. They are also pushing their improvisational skills to the brink, with lengthy jams and inventive song rearrangements. Sometimes it works like a charm, as when Lesh powered a beautiful version of Garcia’s “Bird Song.” On occasion, though, things became dicey, as when Weir struggled to find the groove in “Althea.” He stuck with it and ended up with an offbeat and sinewy version of the song.
The second set was a bit more prescribed, no doubt because Campbell, Williams, and Ingram took on the role of full-time backing band. Still, whatever spontaneity may have been lost was easily made up through execution. Campbell is a monster player on whatever instrument he performs with, and he clearly has an affinity for the Dead’s brand of psychedelic Americana.
The expanded band opened with the gentle swirl of “Crazy Fingers,” then smoothly segued into the rustic lope of “Friend of the Devil,” which featured Weir on acoustic guitar and Campbell on mandolin. The vocal harmonies (fleshed out by Williams) and instrumental interplay couldn’t have been better and that comfortable sense of camaraderie carried the performers through the entire set.
In terms of interesting song selections, Weir led the band through Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker,” a tune that Garcia’s solo band frequently covered in the ‘90s.
The second half of the second set was all monumental Dead, starting with the searing sequence of “Cryptical Envelopment” and “The Other One.” Lesh then took the lead on “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” which boasted a playful vocal jam.
A slow and probing version of “Black Peter” flaunted the ensemble’s blues impressive chops before Bobby and Phil picked up the tempo with a rollicking version of “Music Never Stopped.”
And, as a reminder that this was indeed music making done in real-time, an encore of “Touch of Grey”—the Dead’s biggest commercial success—bounced and bucked along its track. The tune derailed a couple of times, before winding down into confusion followed by on-stage laughter. But, as Bobby and Phil sang earlier in the evening during a wistful take on “He’s Gone ” — “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.”
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.