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
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.
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.
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.
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.