Concert Review: Phil Lesh and Friends

By Scott McLennan

The venue pulled the plug on Phil Lesh and his band after about 45 minutes into their second set, which was especially unfortunate considering the steady upward trajectory of the show to that point.

Phil Lesh and Friends, at the Leader Bank Pavilion, Boston on July 21

Phil Lesh at Leader Bank Pavilion. Photo: Sam McLennan

Any old Deadhead can tell you that if the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t any old Deadhead who recently had to grapple with the truth of that lyric from the Grateful Dead’s “The Wheel.” Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh was forced to cut short his concert Friday at Leader Bank Pavilion in Boston as a fierce storm moved through the Seaport district bringing heavy rain and a sustained show of lightning.

The venue pulled the plug on Lesh and his band after about 45 minutes into their second set, which was especially unfortunate, considering the steady upward trajectory of the show to that point.

Since the late ’90s, the legendary bassist has led Phil Lesh and Friends as a revolving cast of musicians; some lineups have lasted longer than others but, as of late, Lesh seems to curate performances in batches. This visit East has Phil Lesh and Friends hitting New York’s Long Island and New Haven, in addition to Boston. Along for the ride are Lesh’s longtime drummer John Molo, the bassist’s son Grahame Lesh on guitars and vocals, Eric Krasno on guitars and vocals, Jason Crosby on keys, Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet and vocals, and James Casey on saxophones and vocals.

L-R Eric Krasno, Grahame Lesh, John Molo, Phil Lesh. Photo: Sam McLennan

Boston was this ad hoc troupe’s initial stop of the mini-tour. Unsurprisingly, the first few songs of the concert’s first set sounded like the musicians were getting their collective balance.

They opened with “Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion,” song one on side one of album one by the Grateful Dead. During the Grateful Dead’s original run (from 1965 to 1995) this psychedelic rave-up was never in heavy rotation. But the various bands to emerge after the death of Jerry Garcia have revived this and other long-shelved songs from the Grateful Dead’s expansive catalog.

So the simple thrill of hearing a “rarity” was a good-enough hook for the crowd, which gave the ensemble opportunities to calibrate a bit; this kind of jiggering went on through “Brown Eyed Women” and “Candyman,” a couple of straightforward roots rockers from the Grateful Dead songbook.

Coursing through those numbers, the younger Lesh and Krasno worked out their guitar-weaving technique. The two guitarists also took turns on lead vocals. Hartswick and Crosby likewise flexed with a few powerful solos.

As for the elder Lesh, he presided over all of this with an authoritative command of his instrument and a willingness to step back and let the younger musicians figure out how they were going to handle the songs he has been playing for the better part of his 83 years.

Everything came together beautifully on the chugging slow burn of “He’s Gone.” Krasno and Grahame Lesh commenced an extended exchange between the guitars that led into an expansive ensemble jam that gave the song a broad, beautiful sweep.

L-R Eric Krasno and Grahame Lesh. Photo: Sam McLennan

Phil and his friends then paid tribute to Garcia with a version of Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” a staple in the Jerry Garcia Band repertoire. Krasno and Hartswick split vocal duties. This was the moment that she soared. Both musicians delivered horn solos on the tune, making you wish they had more opportunities to do so elsewhere in the show.

These entries were all greasy fun, the part in the concert that drew the clearest distinction between what Lesh is doing compared to what his former bandmates are up to in Dead  &Company, which played two big shows at Fenway Park last month. (Arts Fuse review and review.)  While both bands are dedicated to the legacy of the Grateful Dead, Lesh does so by bringing together musicians who share a common language and then asking them to face off on the fly; Dead & Co has evolved into a tight-knit group that has infused the sturdy and unique Grateful Dead song catalog into mainstream culture (last month, long-time Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally said in an interview with the Mercury News that there are more Deadheads in 2023 than there were in 1995).

Phil and Friends closed out the first set with the Grateful Dead’s “Althea,” the younger Lesh taking lead vocals on a cosmic anthem that was buoyed by rounds of probing solos from Krasno and Crosby.

It may have made more sense to forgo a set break and just let the band keep going as the bad weather moved in. But maybe Phil and Friends wanted to break down what worked and what needed tinkering as it prepped for a second set.

Jennifer Hartswick and James Casey. Photo: Sam McLennan

Second guessing aside, the band was bolder and more adventurous when it returned to the stage. The elder Lesh took several vocal turns, and space was made for more solos by Crosby, Hartswick, and Casey. The ensemble worked against the elements that were wreaking havoc outside, building a sense of community as every patron took shelter under the pavilion’s tented roof.  The place went bonkers when Phil belted out the line “pray for better weather” during his lead-vocal turn on “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.” And it is those kind of moments that offset the bummer of having a show cut short.

Along with the emotional rushes the band delivered, the musical ones were equally weighty.

The second set opened with a long, powerful “Jack Straw.” Lesh’s bass playing here was fierce, and his long partnership with Molo paid off as those two pushed the rest of players to go further and higher during the set.

In what sounded — and felt like  — a big show of thanks and respect for Lesh, the closing section of the aforementioned “Mississippi Half-Step” had all of the younger players singing along with the elder shaman.

Casey finally got a moment to shine when he sang lead on “Eyes of the World,” a vehicle used for long ensemble jams that eventually built into an explosive version of “Terrapin Station.” The horns, the vocals, the guitars, the majestic rhythms and, of course, the thundering bass work brought the “Terrapin” fable to stirring life.

But then everyone was pulled back down to Earth when venue staffers scurried on stage to tell Phil he was done. Lesh offered a quick apology for having to cut the show short. But there was nothing to be sorry about in terms of what this on-the-fly band has already achieved.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, 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.


  1. Ray on July 23, 2023 at 2:29 pm

    I didn’t get to see the Boston show unfortunately, but I was right up front for the Long Island gig the following day. Last time I saw Phil live was in Brooklyn 2016. I’m hoping it was simply an off night for Phil – I realize he’s 83 – but he just didn’t have it. Wrong notes, sloppy playing and seemed to lose his place in the arrangements quite often. The band was clearly affected by it and did their best to keep things in the pocket. I’m a long time head and Phil is my favorite bassist of all time; having said that, if last night’s show is indicative of his recent performances it’s not a good sign. Love the man & wish him all the best.

    • Jericho on July 27, 2023 at 5:22 am

      You are not listening, I caught this band with two different pieces in SF, Phil is the wizard mind behind the improvisation style of the Dead, his training in classical composition allows him to open the door to the evolution of this music, in Phil’s realm the songs and riffs and structures so brilliantly woven into the deads original style have evolved now, he uses pieces of riffs rhythms time signatures to create musical freedom for these exceptional musicians to be utterly limitless within a structure, which is unique unto itself in live music currently, it is truly a phenomenon and the fact that the songs are able to maintain their original lyrical and written structure within is unbelievable, No band on the planet is doing something like this, and none could, that’s what Phil brings. But if u look at it from a closed 2 dimensional mindset u will see nothing but your own musical failings. Eat some acid and try again.

  2. Josh Berger on July 24, 2023 at 8:16 am

    Well written and knowledgeable review. Thanks!

    • Mike Ahern on July 24, 2023 at 11:55 am

      I’ve seen the GD over 200 times, Phil multiple shows on every solo tour he’s played since 99. He has never disappointed, ever. Just flew up to NY from FL for his b’day run, it was amazing.
      All that being said, this reviewer just wrote a good review about a weather shortned, solid AF show, and your take away was “his recent performances” (of which you’ve seen 1 in the last 7 years)” it’s not a good sign”????
      I hear Mayer puts a GD song or two in his solo shows sometimes, and Bobbies most recent tour last year the tickets started at $175 each here in St Augustine. Maybe a show sponsored by bud light might be more to your liking…

      • Charles Tarbet on July 24, 2023 at 5:19 pm

        Mike Arhen

        200 dead shows and you still didnt get it?

        Truly pathetic

      • Aaron on July 25, 2023 at 1:11 am


  3. William Tougas on July 24, 2023 at 6:16 pm

    Was in Boston for the show. Was so blown away by the performance and left wanting more so we grabbed tickets to the New Haven show. Diffrent energy and much more jam band in New Haven than Boston but was fantastic.

  4. Matt B on July 24, 2023 at 7:35 pm

    Does anyone know the names of the two roadies that accompanied Phil Lesh and Friends on their east coast tour to MA, NY and CT?

  5. Bill on July 25, 2023 at 5:41 am

    Jennifer Hartswick really let it fly in “That’s what love will make you do”… I’ve never heard of her before, but if you can find a recording of this show, definitely check out that tune.

    Also, the storm raged for an hour before they shut it down–complete with lightening. Didn’t make sense to stop after Terrapin.

    And still, it was a great show 🙂

  6. Rick Mancini on July 25, 2023 at 7:17 am

    I enjoyed your article very much.I am not a big Dead fan and I haven’t seen the Lesh show. But I worked security for a few shows with Bob Weir and Mayer.I was very lucky to work during the sound check before both shows.Bob and John were there for it along with the other members and I just really enjoyed watching them.The following year there was a 50 fans allowed in to watch the sound check and Bob came over for 15 minutes and talked to them.I was always fans of the guys but my respect for them went through the roof.I went out back and Bob is working out in the back lot with weights

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