What does it mean that I can clearly remember every New Year’s Eve I spent with the Grateful Dead or post-Dead bands, but can recall almost none of my other December 31sts? I know that in the years after Jerry died, there were a couple of midnights spent with friends, dancing at midnight to a grainy VHS bootleg of the “Sugar Magnolia” from the ’78 Closing of Winterland concert. I recall one year my dear, now-departed friend Jon Hoffman cooked live lobsters we washed down with champagne; that was fun! A couple of years ago, Regan and I elected to go see Phil & Friends on the 30th at the relatively intimate Warfield, but not go to NYE at the larger SF Civic. We cruised around Berkeley with our teenage daughter looking for action and finally found it in the form of a cozy French restaurant, where we gorged ourselves on cake and champagne before heading home and watching a Fred Astaire movie at midnight on TCM. But the rest are mostly a blur.
I must admit that once the Dead stopped playing New Year’s I was somewhat relieved. For the last few at the giant Oakland Coliseum (see previous blog), the hassle of dragging my tired ass down to that ugly parking lot hours in advance on New Year’s Eve day, waiting in the rain and/or cold outside for hours (which line do we pick today—north entrance or south entrance?), or trying to finagle a way to get in early so I could save seats for friends, all for what often ended up being only a so-so show, had taken its toll through the years. Come the day after Christmas, my blood pressure would start to rise in anticipation of the forthcoming end-of-year stress.
Still, when a Dead family New Year’s Eve finally presented itself on Dec. 31, 2000, we were eager to go back—it had been eight long years! The show was a Phil & Friends concert at my neighborhood hall—Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, one of my all-time favorite venues. And the show killed! What I learned that night was that it’s hard to beat celebrating New Year’s with the tribe, dancing to this music I love so much. I’ve been to a handful since, and each has delivered the goods in ways that many Grateful Dead New Year’s Eves did not.
So, here is some more good New Year’s Eve listening for your voracious little ears, from the post-JG era. No grades this time, and frankly I can’t recall a single midnight moment off the top of my head. Most were cool, though.
2000; Phil Lesh & Friends, Kaiser. What a dilemma! You may recall that at this time, Phil was at war with Bob, Mickey and Billy over a number of business issues connected to the post-Jerry Grateful Dead organization. Sides were taken. Mean things were said. The Internet was in flames! We won’t get into it all here, but the end result is that the two factions ended up putting on competing shows for New Year’s Eve, which pissed me off to no end!
For me, it was an easy musical and aesthetic choice. After a few different lineups of Phil & Friends had played during the winter, spring and summer of 2000 (with Jeff Pevar and Jimmy Herring; with Robben Ford and Paul Barrere and Bill Payne, etc.), what would be the longest-lasting early version of P&F turned up that fall, and they were smokin’. This is what became popularly known as the PLQ (Phil Lesh Quintet), with Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring on guitars, Rob Barraco on keys and John Molo on drums. They tore it up on their October swing, and NYE was my first time seeing them. They were capable of tremendous electricity and always seemed to be in exploration mode (OK, they were pretty rambling and noodle-y at times). Warren was one of the first singers in P&F to do justice to some of Jerry’s “big” tunes, and he also brought in some of his own songs and cool covers.
That NYE, the first set opens with “Uncle John’s Band” (with the fast, African-sounding instrumental breaks that The Other Ones had favored) and also includes Warren’s dynamite take on Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” The second set features an ultra-funky “Shakedown,” Warren going “Into the Mystic” and a version of “The Eleven” (old school style, not the Weir update) sandwiched by “Midnight Hour.” Midnight set songs: “Golden Road” > “Viola Lee Blues” > “Goin’ Down the Road.” The long and generous set also has two “Dark Star” interludes, “I Am the Walrus,” a bass-off with Phil and Phish’s Mike Gordon, and Warren totally nailing both “Stella Blue” and “Comes a Time.” I can’t tell you how great it was to hear those songs again done that well.
2000, The Other Ones, Oakland Coliseum. Obviously, if I went to the Phil show, I didn’t go to this one. Choosing Kaiser over the Coliseum was part of it. So was the presence of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars as one support act on The Other Ones’ show. (I know many people love them, but not me; bo-ring!) As fate would have it, I never got to see Alphonzo Johnson in the Phil slot in The Other Ones (I was out of town when they played the Bay Area late that summer). But I was a fan of the band—always liked Hornsby’s good vibes, sterling vocals and piano; dug seeing Mickey and Billy going at it; and though Steve Kimock, whom I love, had departed the group, his band being on the bill meant he would probably play with The Other Ones (and he did, on several songs).
Their single marathon set (which I just recently listened to for the first time) begins at midnight with “Sugar Magnolia” > “Dark Star” and then is kind of up and down. Let’s just look at the positives: Bruce shines on “Ramble On Rose,” “Wharf Rat” and a couple of his own tunes—“White Wheeled Limousine” and “Valley Road.” Bob’s “Odessa” is hot in this arrangement, and he does a great job with “Weather Report Suite,” as well. Kimock turns up for “Estimated” and then sticks around for the rest of the set, including an “Other One” jam, more “Dark Star” and others. Transitions are rough and there’s a slightly bloodless quality to a lot of it. Can’t tell too much about Alphonzo from the recording, except that his style has more slap in it and isn’t nearly as interesting melodically as Phil’s.
2001, Phil Lesh & Friends, Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band, Kaiser. At some point during this year, Phil, Bob, Mickey and Bill apparently agreed that being civil to one another was better than the alternative, and they might even be able to make some more good music together. Pretty much everyone at Kaiser this night knew they would play together in some form, but we didn’t know the particulars. The first set is the PLQ augmented by soulful Susan Tedeschi on the two opening numbers, “Midnight Hour” and “Hard to Handle”; a great match, as it turned out. Also included in that set is a triple-decker “Viola Lee” hoagie with fillings including “Tons of Steel” (Warren does Brent as well as anyone) and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
The second set has Bob, Mickey and Bill joining in to form the curiously named Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band (Crusader Rabbit was a popular ’50s cartoon character). After the midnight madness, they launch into a solid “Not Fade Away” (with Warren wailing on slide), and then sparkle on a handful of GD tunes—“Truckin’,” “Playing in the Band,” “The Wheel” and “Sugar Magnolia.” It was fantastic seeing them together again. As Phil announced at one point to ecstatic cheers: “Unity is possible!”
A third set finds P&F back for gems such as “Help-Slip-Frank,” a fat “Dark Star” and a spectacular Spanish jam that charges into one of those speedy versions of “Terrapin Station” (beginning with “Inspiration…”) the PLQ used to play; pretty cool. Derek Trucks, whose band opened the show, joins in on some of the third set action. Check it out!
2002, The Other Ones, Oakland Coliseum. This version of the group consisted of the Core Four plus Herring and Barraco from P&F and RatDog keysman Jeff Chimenti. It’s another solid show, too. The first set may be the best, with its opening triumvirate of “St. Stephen” > “The Eleven” > “Jack Straw.” Midnight song: “Sugar Magnolia.” Then it’s a big, beefy set with such highlights as “Shakedown,” “Terrapin” with a “Dark Star” in between the “Lady With a Fan” and “Terrapin Station” sections, and a substantial encore that starts with a “Caution” jam that goes into “I Know You Rider” and ends with “Baby Blue” and a sublime instrumental take on “Stella Blue.”
2005, Phil Lesh & Friends, Bill Graham Civic (SF). As I noted above, I didn’t go to this one, which featured a unique P&F lineup: Joan Osborne, Larry Campbell, Barry Sless, Rob Barraco, John Molo and Ryan Adams. There’s lots of fierce jamming and guitar pyrotechnics, with three outstanding players slashing about, but the vocals often leave something to be desired—there are three Phil leads in the first set alone (including “Scarlet”; not a good idea) and Joan’s slow, bluesy take on “Sugaree” is kind of lifeless. Midnight songs: “Truckin’” (with R.A. on lead vocals) > a slow shufflin’ “Deal” (Ryan again). Ryan sounds great on “Stella Blue” and a couple of others (including his own “Peaceful Valley”), but he also sounds lost here and there. Joan, unfortunately, does surprisingly little. The rough edge that R.A. brings is often compelling, but this is also probably the sloppiest Phil & Friends show I know of.
2008, RatDog, Phil Lesh & Friends, The Midnight Band, Bill Graham Civic. An outstanding set from RatDog (which I was unable to find on Archive.org) includes such treats as “Playing in the Band,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” “The Other One” and “Terrapin Flyer.” Then Phil & Friends (the Jackie Greene-Larry Campbell-Steve Molitz edition) play a set that opens with “The Golden Road” > “The Wheel” and also has Jackie’s powerful version of “Don’t Let Me Down” and Molitz’s instrumental tour-de-force, “The Elevator.” Next comes an unusual but happenin’ trio interlude with Phil, Bob on acoustic and drummer Jay Lane tackling “El Paso,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Dark Star” > “Cassidy.” Finally, the midnight set with both P&F and RatDog folks starts with “Sugar Mag” > “Uncle John’s” and also features “Good Lovin’,” “Scarlet,” an electric “Dark Star” and lots more.
Happy New Year, everyone! We’ll see ya on the flip side. Onward to 2012! Let’s hope the Mayans were wrong…