On the Road Again: Rockin’ for the Faithful (And Good Causes), A Few Minutes with Phil Lesh
By Blair Jackson
On the day I catch up with Phil Lesh for a few final pre-tour thoughts—Sunday, April 5—he’s about to go into yet another rehearsal for The Dead’s April-May tour. The sextet has logged some serious practice time this winter-spring, with the most recent band get-togethers occurring in public in New York City: On March 30, The Dead (or members thereof) made four appearances over the course of one very long day, performing one song on the popular morning TV chat-fest The View, then staging three free concerts in three different venues—an acoustic shindig (featuring Phil, Bob and Warren) at a place called Angel Orensanz, and then electric sets at the tiny Gramercy Theatre and the 3,000-capacity Roseland Ballroom. More than 4,000 lucky fans earned their right to go to one of the shows via an online lottery. (You can find setlists for each of the shows here.)
Phil and I chatted a bit about that, and also about one of the cooler aspects of the Dead tour: The fact that at every stop on the tour, a selection of some of the best seats at each venue—ranging from 24 seats (in Greensboro) to about 100 (for Madison Square Garden)—are being sold through an online auction to raise funds mostly for the various philanthropic organizations The Dead are connected to; yet another example of The Dead giving back to the community, as they have since their founding. To sweeten the deal, too, The Dead are offering two limited edition band-signed posters for every pair of tickets sold through the auction—a tremendous value (and a fabulous memento)! For more info on Charity Folks—the online group hosting the auction—and to actually place bids on premium show ducats and special VIP packages, click here. Bidding closes about a week before each show.
Have I caught you in mid-rehearsals?
Actually, this is our last day.
What happens at the end of rehearsals?
We play our little hearts out until we drop exhausted on the floor, then we give each other a big hug and say, “See ya on the road!”
Is there a natural evolution that occurs over the course of rehearsals?
Well, we sort of imposed one this time. The first two weeks we went over a whole bunch of songs, and this last five days we’ve just been playing, doing a lot of jamming and trying to lock it down. And, of course, we did those three shows in New York which I thought were very well-performed and well-received. It gave all of us a bunch of new confidence. So now we can open ourselves up to that magic and feel like we know what we’re doing. Those shows were a lot of fun.
Tell me about that day.
Well, we decided we wanted to do some free shows for the New York audience, so we put these things together just a few days before. We did The View in the morning—Warren, Bob and I—and that was fine. It was a normal TV show. They’re very nice people. I’ve seen Whoopi at our shows, and she knows Mickey; she’s a long-time pal. She was really stoked that we were there.
Is it hard to get used to cutting your songs down for TV? Last year you did the super-abbreviated “Sugaree” with your band [on Conan O’Brien’s show] and here you had the “Friend of the Devil,” which at least had all the verses…
[Laughs] Yeah, well, that’s TV. Musicians are the poor relations of TV variety shows. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why they always go on last and you have to cut your song down to three minutes and 30 seconds. I would rather have played long and talked less, but that’s my personal thing. Like I said, they were very nice and it was really a good experience.
I’d never heard of the first venue you played that day, Angel Orensanz…
It’s an old synagogue, if I’m not mistaken, and it’s been turned into an arts center and it’s an amazing place. It looks sort of like an old medieval town hall, with a balcony around three sides of it and all kinds of great old decorations, and it sound sounds really nice in there, too. For acoustic we were able to play so quiet that we could do all the acoustic dynamics that the instruments will allow and get it across to the audience.
Do you plan on playing acoustic music with some regularity on this tour?
We’re going to see what we can do. We set up yesterday to rehearse with the gear and the physical setup. It’s not going to be every show certainly…
More hit or miss, like it was with your band…
Right, it will be selected shows, I suppose.
Then it was on to the Gramercy Theatre…
Right, which I’d never been to before. I think it holds around 600 people; a great little place. That was really cool because I didn’t have to use ear monitors. I could listen with open ears and use wedges for monitors, which I can’t usually do in larger places. That second show was about an hour.
How much time did you have between the three gigs?
We had two hours between them, so that allowed whatever gear needed to be moved to get where it had to go and be set up.
Did you have different audiences each place or were there people who were chasing you around town going to every show?
Well, as far as I know it was set up so nobody got to come to more than one. The idea was to allow as many people to get in for free and see the band as possible.
So did the equipment at Roseland come over from the Gramercy, or did you have enough to set up in both places independently?
I don’t really know for sure. There was some stuff that had to come over, but not a lot. The Roseland show was really great, I thought. We ended up playing a little over two hours there. We couldn’t stop playing. [Laughs]
It’s a great place. Had you played there in any capacity before?
Yeah, I played there in the ’90s with Warren for an Allen Woody tribute concert. The Allman Brothers showed up at that one, and Berry Oakley, Jr. was there, and Phil Lesh & Friends played. I enjoyed Roseland even more this time because it was our gig, of course. We could really work the place.
And you also played with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon while you were in New York…
[Laughs] What a trip, you know? It was an honor for us to have them invite us to play the last show of their 40th anniversary run. Obviously we go way back with those guys.
Let’s talk about The Dead’s involvement with Charity Folks. I was not familiar with them previously, but I see they do work with a lot of great groups, from the ACLU, to Sanctuary for Families, to the Alzheimers Association, to the T.J. Martell Foundation…
That’s one of the reasons we chose them. I haven’t been that involved in the nuts-and-bolts negotiations about this, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about them. And this seemed like a good opportunity: The band gets to hold out some of the best seats for every show—in a lot of cases the very front rows—and we wanted to make these tickets available for people to bid on with the money going to charity. We’re going to benefit the Rex Foundation, the Further Foundation, which is Bob’s foundation, and Unbroken Chain, which is Jill’s and my foundation. There are also a couple of other non-profits involved who will benefit as well. It’s really a continuation of what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years: first by playing for free, then doing benefits, and then with our foundations. Those foundations will, of course, pass that money on to worthy institutions and non-profits.
It seems like in the early days you guys played almost as many benefits as paying gigs…
[Laughs] It does seem like that. It wasn’t just us, either, of course. All the San Francisco bands played a lot of benefits. As we started touring nationally and working more, it became a problem because we couldn’t do all the benefits we were asked, and of course we usually wanted to do them. Eventually, it got really hard to fit it in with our schedules, so that’s one of the main reason we started the Rex Foundation [in the early ’80s].
It must give this tour a slightly special feel to know that every show, in effect, becomes a benefit of sorts, since part of the proceeds of every show will go to charity…
That’s right. It’s always a good thing to be able to give back.
Why do you think this tour has generated so much excitement? It definitely feels like a much bigger deal than the one in 2004? The tickets have sold faster, it’s getting a lot of publicity…
You know, I can’t really put my finger on it. I agree, though, there seems to be a lot of excitement about this tour. I guess what it’s really about is us playing together again. Maybe it’s “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
I’ve been feeling a groundswell of desire out there for us to play together again. What really jump-started it was doing those shows for Obama. My son Brian said before the California primary, “Dad, you’ve gotta get The Dead for a benefit because it will be so much more powerful and so much more important.” So I called Bobby and he was immediately down with it. Mickey was down. Billy couldn’t make it because he was in Hawaii and it was all put together really quickly. And that was successful musically—it was absolutely wonderful from our perspective. It was such a gas to play again with Bobby. You forget how wide-ranging these guys are in what they play and in how they think. So that was great, and then it was totally a no-brainer when the [Obama] campaign asked us to do the big show at Penn State. And that went so well, that’s when we essentially decided, “Let’s go play some music together.”
The people want us to play music together. They want us to come out and play the Grateful Dead classics, so that’s what we’re going to do.
I would think that by this point, between being in your band and playing on that previous Dead tour, it must be pretty instinctual playing with Warren, too.
Warren is such a consummate professional and he fits in so beautifully now. It was harder for him, I know, back in ’04, when he was there with Jimmy [Herring] also, and there were two of them playing, plus Bob. It was difficult to know exactly what to do when. But this time he’s really a part of the band, as is [keyboardist] Jeff Chimenti, who has all that history with Bob and with The Dead.
Are there any plans to go on the road after the July 4th Rothbury Festival show, which is being billed as the only Dead show of the summer?
I can say without fear of contradiction that we have not made any plans.
Have you made any plans for your own band?
No, I haven’t. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing for the rest of the year.
Well, I hope you go out again. I love that band.
So do I. And I love to do it, so it’s not like it won’t happen. I just don’t know when.
It would be great to see a fall tour!
Those 3 shows in NYC were worth every penny to fly up from SW Florida on the fly!
Glad to see the boys so solid!!
see you in NASSAU! MSG!!!! HARTFORD!! NJ! NJ! PHILLY! PHILLY!
This is the type of insightful interview i wanted.i have been asking myself these questions for a week+. Wondering the progress of rehearsal, potential Setlist/instrument configuration, and Phuture of the Phriends since the Dog has announced end of summer gigs. we're grateful!
I got to thank Phil, Warren and Bobby as they came up the stairs at Angel Orensanz for these shows and more importantly ALL the shows...give 'em a hug for me when ya see them. The shows were the hi-lite of my "Dead career" and am so glad I got to see them. Phil is right...Angel Orensanz was AMAZING...they played soft and we listened LOUD! The Gramercy was just like the 10-16-81 Melk Weg show...just the RIGHT size and was my favorite set of the night (maybe because it was the first time in a long time I've seen the "Core") and the Roseland was electric (no pun intended). 38 years I've been listening to the Dead and this night made me know that the time was well spent. Just like the song says "All the years combine, they melt into a dream..."
..even a blind man knows when the sun is shinin'...you can feel it!..
I already posted my thoughts on the "Dead to Tour in the Spring" topic and more recently on the "Meet me at MSG" topic.
To be brief, the first venue was like having the band in your own living room. Great place, music a little uneven. The 20 minute Birdsong was the highlight, along witha Riple encore. The Blender at Gramercy was also a great, intimate setting. Set was solid, opening with a long Jam into Playin' Thought that Warren was a little too constrained. The venue and set with the most energy by far was Roseland. I felt the boys, especially Warren, hit their stride with Eyes, my personal highlight of the whole day, and then finished with St. Stephen>Dark Star>Sugar Mag and NFA encore. Great way to end an amazing day.
Phil was fantastic all day. The man is a genius and he looks great. I think they will only get better as the tour progresses. No one can replace Jerry, but I think Warren is a wonderful fit. looking forward to MSG and the Coliseum.
"One watch by night, one watch by day
If you get confused, listen to the music play"
We have talked to both Mickey and Billy here a couple of times, too, Badger...
So, what are your thoughts about the three shows (and the venues), pomo1?
its good to have an interview with a 'core four' member here at last. So big thanks to Phil and to Blair!
Enjoyed the interview. Just don't tell Phil some of us (me included) went to all three sets on the Taxi Tour!
"One watch by night, one watch by day
If you get confused, listen to the music play"