Phil Lesh And Friends Live At The Warfield Relix Records
Since surviving a liver transplant and hitting the road in 1999 with a rotating cast of Friends, Phil Lesh has been the one charter member of the Grateful Dead to maintain and nurture the good-natured albeit intense sense of adventure at the heart of that seminal improvisational rock band's best music.
Just in the last year, when there have been no less than six different lineups, some groups of Lesh's Friends have been memorable than others. While the septet recorded on audio and video at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre this past May could be the most conventional of them all, it's also the most versatile. Not to mention high-profile and therefore accessible: guitarist John Scofield is on board along with saxophonist Greg Osby as well as vocalist Joan Osborne.
With no stage production to speak of save for a somewhat nondescript backdrop, it may ultimately be distracting to watch this assemblage of PL & Friends on the DVD recorded 19th May. Nevertheless, a mix of vintage Grateful Dead from various eras fosters an exhibition of the diverse skills of the musicians in the band. "Uncle John's Band demonstrates what an asset to the group is Osborne, her beautiful voice lifting the otherwise mundane vocals of the frontman and adding timbre to keyboardist Rob Barraco's effective though somewhat nondescript voice.
The rippling segue from "Eyes Of The World to "St. Stephen to "The Eleven showcases the muscle of drummer John Molo, not to mention his fluidity and his experience playing with Lesh, who always manages to be mobile no matter how low the notes he plays. Meanwhile, "Help On The Way into "Slipknot into "Franklin's Tower gives guitarists Larry Campbell and Scofield a chance to engage in some call and response as well as tandem interplay. The crisp picking of the former doesn't exactly complement the staccato touch of the latter, but, as is especially evident watching the video, the two enjoy picking each other's musical brains.
Lesh has championed free soundboard downloads of his Friends' performances in the past, and recently engaged in a philosophical debate of sorts with other members of the Dead about the righteousness of same (especially as it could adversely affect commercial prospects for future archival releases).
Consequently, it's interesting to note how creatively Lesh has chosen to package and market essentially two separate sets of product via Relix Records, a move separate from Grateful Dead's recent alliance with the vaunted archivists, Rhino. Neither are complete recordings, though each focuses on one night alone and it's on the triple disc audio/video package where the band demonstrates how powerfully they can really play (in a Derek Featherstone mix mastered by Jeffrey Norman that captures nuance and bottom in the musicianship). The high voltage performance of Lesh's self-penned rocker "Passenger may be the pinnacle of this two-night run, though and it actually appears on a DVD almost but not quite identical to the second disc in the Warfield video package.
It may or may not seem redundant for the DVD to contain a rock title, "Jazz Jam, with Lesh, Molo, Scofield and Osby participating, because it follows an impromptu discussion of the art of improvisation. That interlude itself precedes some backstage footage of the entire group mostly rehearsing vocal breakdowns. Little of either segment negates or illuminates the mystery of those moments when the whole group locks in: when Lesh and his band moves in unison, with purpose and seemingly without effort, the result is something like this rip-roaring rendition of "All Along The Watchtower, where Osborne really lets loose to show her range and her strength. It's in marked contrast to the salty pose she adopts on "Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)," where her physical movements appear as forced as her vocal affectations sound.
That Bob Dylan song is the one contemporary cover hereapart from "Morning Dew." "Turn On Your Lovelight and "I Know You Rider" became staples of the Dead repertoire early in their career and are included amongst the clutch of Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter and other Grateful Dead chestnuts such as "They Love Each Other "Scarlet Begonias, spread perhaps a little too carefully across the two Live At The Warfield presentations. "This Wheel's On Fire," made famous by The Band on Music From Big Pink (and co-written with Dylan) was played on the run but appears on neither CD nor DVD, while the inclusion of "Mason's Children," a well-crafted out-take from Workingman's Dead, would've been likewise a welcome addition to either of these set lists.
But that's not to imply Lesh's concept or the execution of it is becoming predictable. The presence of Osby alone adds an element of bonafide jazz that's never been present in Phil's modern-day shows (and hear the ethereal tones he imparts to the intro on "The Wheel.") This New Orleans flavoring contrasts with the country blues texture added by Campbellwho also plays mandolin and fiddleand thus lends an authentically earthy textures. Listen especially to the gypsy violin Campbell layers onto "The Other One as the band segues in and out of "Dark Star on the second audio disc, not to mention the doleful pedal steel sounds he imparts to "Box Of Rain.
As Lesh sings his signature song, honestly but just barely in tune, it's difficult not to hear maudlin or morbid overtones given his recent diagnosis and ensuing surgery for prostate cancer. More important, however, is the depth of passion he evinces here, despite the limitations of his voice: it's a sense of reach comparable to that which arises from the other members of the group throughout the two performances captured this past spring.
While it's not really possible to capture a definitive performance of any band as courageous as this whether it's the John Coltrane Quartet, The Allman Brothers Band (of any era) or Phishthose moments of fiery drive, combined with an unerring sense of direction, transcend much of mainstream rock and jazz in 2006.
Tracks and Personnel
CD1: Shakedown Street; Mr. Charlie; Pride Of Cucamonga; Cosmic Charlie; Scarlet Begonias; They Love Each Other; Turn On Your Lovelight; Donor Rap. CD2: The Wheel; Dark Star; Morning Dew; I Know You Rider; The Other One; Dark Star; The Other One; Box Of Rain.
Bonus DVD: The Art Of Improvisation: Jazz And Rock (Lesh in conversation with Scofield and Osby); free improvisation played by Lesh, Scofield, Molo and Osby; backstage footage; All Along the Watchtower (bonus video); Passenger (exclusive bonus video).
DVD: Uncle John's Band; Eyes Of The World; St. Stephen; The Eleven; Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks); All Along The Watchtower; New Speedway Boogie; Unbroken Chain; Help On The Way; Slipknot!; Franklin's Tower.
Bonus 2nd DVD: The Art Of Improvisation: Jazz And Rock" (Lesh in conversation with Scofield and Osby); free improvisation played by Lesh, Scofield, Molo and Osby; backstage footage.
Personnel Phil Lesh: electric bass, vocals; Joan Osborne: vocals; John Scofield: guitar; Larry Campbell: guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, mandolin, vocals; Greg Osby: alto and soprano saxophones; Rob Barraco: piano, organ, vocals; John Molo: drums.
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