Since returning to the road in 1999 after a liver transplant, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's concept of a rotating cast of musicians has generated numerous rosters, including Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell of Phish, Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes and guitar wunderkind Derek Trucks. The chemistry reached a pinnacle with the five-man lineup of guitarist Jimmy Herring, keyboardist/vocalist Rob Barraco, drummer John Molo and guitarist/vocalist/composer Warren Haynes, an edition that remained stable from 2000 to 2003.
Because the sole official document of their work, There and Back (Columbia, 2002), barely scratches the surface of their improvisational and interpretive excellence, The Q (as they were known) may go down as the most unheralded band in recent contemporary rock. Nevertheless, this particular unit set such high standards for Lesh & Friends, it's hard to manage expectations for subsequent lineups. Yet the group that's coalescing on this fall's tour may very well have all the virtues of the quintet and then some.
The main asset in the short and long run is the presence of Jackie Greene. If you didn't know better you'd think this was his band. Besides his multi-instrumental versatility, he sings most of the leads on Dead staples like "Sugar Magnolia, his own (somewhat derivative) originals, and a few covers (The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down ), all the while displaying the self-assurance of a front man who's done it for years. Greene does have a viable career on his own, but nothing on his solo albums would lead you to expect the charisma he radiated at the Orpheum: his impassioned reading of "Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall had the entire theater roused to a fever pitch.
The piano, organ, harmonica and acoustic/electric guitars at Greene's disposal mirrored the versatility of Larry Campbell. He played mandolin on a gentle encore of "Ripple Tuesday night and used violin sparingly to bring out the melancholy of "Brokedown Palace, closing the next night's show. The once and future sideman of Dylan himself as well as Emmylou Harris and Levon Helm, Campbell sometimes plays electric guitar too proficiently for his own good, but Green's courageous solos seemed to inspire him to reach a new emotionally expressive place (though the whole band radiated admiration of Greene's command of the stage): when Greene sang Boz Scaggs' arrangement of "Loan Me A Dime, Campbell appeared to rise to the occasion of Duane Allman's original solo, walking purposefully to center stage before bending his knees along with his strings to wring all the emotion he could out of the notes.
If "The Master," as Lesh called him during the band intros, experienced an epiphany at that point, it must be said everybody in this group fulfills his respective role to the hilt. Particle's Steve Molitz fascinates the way his eyes roam the stage in search of ways to fill space in the instrumental mix with his keyboards. Close your eyes and Molo sounds like more than one drummer. And for his part, Phil Lesh, not only bandleader par excellence but navigator without peer, utilized his complex compositional sense of structure as he played: his deep mobile basslines reverberated through tunes such as "Eyes of the World and "Scarlet Begonias, in clear relief to the overall house sound, even when he wasn't dropping bombs to rattle the roof.
Watching Lesh calling out the segues through the stage monitors doesn't make the links between "China Cat Sunflower"/ Eyes of the World / Viola Lee Blues /'Althea much less miraculous to witness. In Boston, while there was a sense that this quintet is just beginning to explore deep space, the connection of Dead material from various epochs confirmed not only the durability of the songs themselves, but also the expansive live approach to the material. Interjecting lesser known gems such as "New Speedway Boogie one of Robert Hunter's best set of lyricsas well as covers like The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar (which immediately followed the J. Geils staple "Pack Fair and Square," led by Peter Wolf himself) and you're hearing a contemporary update of the now close to forty-year old eclectic approach that distinguishes The Grateful Dead.
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