Hot off a recent tour with Furthur, Phil Lesh takes a few minutes to tell the Grateful Dead Channel’s Gary Lambert what’s in store for his upcoming Phil Lesh & Friends tour and beyond. Read the transcript here.
COMING TO YOU FROM THE BEAUTIFUL SAN FRANCISCO, BAY AREA... IT'S PHIL LESH
Hi Gary... is that you?
It is indeed.
You don't sound like yourself on this connection so that's why I asked.
No, this is my sonorous radio announcer voice.
[Phil laughs] Yes, I remember that.
You usually get to hear my stammering teenage voice. We're all ripening with age.
Let us hope so...
Anyway, Phil, there's a lot to talk about. I guess the first order of business is a brand new Phil Lesh & Friends tour, a mini-tour, I guess you would call it with a few dates in the East and a brand new line-up of Friends. Let's talk about that for a minute.
Sure thing. It all really arises out of Terrapin. We first debuted this line-up at Terrapin and it was truly magical. Anders is a real discovery. I don't know if you've heard any of his playing or seen him on YouTube, but he is volcanic, a force of nature. His guitar playing has a whole different approach from Jerry but it kind of has a similar sound to it. His appetite for the music is just enormous. He chews it up and spits it out and it's all different.
For those for whom this may be a new name, we are talking about Anders Osborne. I know he is very popular among many of our listeners but he may be unfamiliar to some and as Phil said, someone you should check out for his own work and what he'll be doing with Phil now.
Also in the band is Luther Dickinson from North Mississippi All-Stars. We had a great experience at Terrapin with Luther and his brother Cody, who came out to play at the Crossroads as the North Mississippi All-Stars. My son Grahame (who is also in the band for November) and I sat in with them for their entire show so it was kind of like a whole new band. Luther comes from such a soulful place. At Terrapin, he was talking to the audience about the way that he learned music from sitting at the feet, literally, of all of these greats who would come work with his dad, Jim Dickinson. This is the same thing that is going on here at Terrapin with younger musicians, working with me and other musicians who come in to the Crossroads and learning their craft in that way. I'm also trying to expand the repertoire and our approaches to it in many different ways. One of those ways is by bringing in the second generation of musicians to TXR via an education program where we will reach out to music directors at local high schools, asking them to identify the students they think might benefit most from our program; our Team Terrapin (Grahame and Brian and their peers - Ross James and Alex Koford, Scott Padden - the other guys in the Terrapin Family Band, along with Alex Jarvey, our production manager) will be mentoring those kids on a basic level while I will work with them on a more intuitive musical level. We plan to do weekends at first, then later as it gets going, we’ll do a six-week immersion program where the kids come every day after school and we teach them about the industry, about songwriting, recording, production, and then they play and we discuss the performance, the song, whatever.
You must have read my mind because this is exactly what I hoped you'd talk about - the expanding of the Grateful Dead tradition and the traditions from which the Grateful Dead hatched.
Exactly. It's almost a solemn duty that we do this. Besides, I'm getting kind of tired of touring after 48 years on the road…
You've earned it!
Basically, Gary, after this tour, I'm off the bus. I'm not going to be doing any tours per se. Phil Lesh & Friends has a really great set-up going for next year for performances outside of Terrapin. We are going to make an announcement about that during this tour. We've pretty much got the whole year locked in, in a very cool way for 2014. I'm really stoked about another way we're going to widen our scope - Phil Lesh & Friends is going to expand its membership into new areas, which are very exciting.
This actually returns to when you first started doing shows as Phil & Friends in 1998. It was an entity of rotating memberships and “try this on for size” and see what fits and see who will turn into a real band or what will just be an enjoyable one-off. You seem to be returning to that ethic after you had a fixed membership for a number of years. The last time you went out with Phil & Friends, it was with John Scofield and John Medeski, along with John Kadlecik and Joe Russo. It couldn't be a more different line-up than the one you have now but those guys bring a whole other set of ideas and skills and flavors to the party.
Exactly. That's really the point. That's really how we're extending the Grateful Dead paradigm. Its “weltanschauung” - or worldview. That's always been the goal. The Quintet, for instance, was so satisfying and it was such fun to play with those guys that I kind of wanted to take it as far as I could. Really, it was events that caused that to fold up because we went out for two years with the Dead guys in '03 and '04. Scheduling kind of prevented the old “Q” from coming back together again. That wasn't such a bad thing either, because then we could continue to explore with other musicians and other points of view.
It creates a kind of serendipity when you stumble into a situation where you are trying something new whether by design or by happy accident. It really does create the possibility for unthought-of collaborations. I think this existed in music for a long time. It hasn't been as particular to the rock world. It seems like fans or the industry expect bands to mate for life.
It is a remarkable and admirable thing that there are bands that have been together 30, 40, even 50 years - god bless you Rolling Stones and Beach Boys. But in other fields of music, especially those involving improvisation, the tradition has been to break with the tradition, to have bands play together for a while and maybe the younger players then branch off. Of course, Art Blakey was a great mentor, a university of jazz. Miles Davis was that way. None of Miles's great bands were together for more than 4 or 5 years. But out of that you get the John Coltrane Quartet. You get Weather Report.
You get Herbie Hancock.
Tony Willams as a leader.
So the gifts that the Miles Davis quintets bestowed on the world went on for years and years and decades after. And there is certainly the potential for the Grateful Dead to go on like that.
That's part of the reason that we created Terrapin Crossroads and that our prime directive down there is to - number one - make it different. Well, number two, make it different and number one, bring up young musicians, mentor young musicians. Right now, I'm feeling like the music will be in good hands.
And the young musicians can teach you a thing or two.
[Laughs] Yes indeed.
Both in terms of lighting a fire under you and in terms of energy. Also bringing in ideas that might not have occurred to you from your own musical perspective.
Exactly. The best thing about Phil Lesh & Friends and our revolving door is that everybody who comes in does exactly that. The kids do it to a degree that's a little bit more intense because of the energy and enthusiasm that they bring, but the old pros are equally valuable, I have to say.
Absolutely. A thing about Terrapin and Bobby's - as he likes to describe it - "ultimate play pen" for musicians over there at TRI is after years of playing to crowds of thousands or even ten of thousands or at a couple of big festivals, hundreds of thousands, you have now afforded yourself a return to intimacy with an audience which I think is probably really important for the creation of new music as well.
It definitely is. Just the feeling of being in our room there at Terrapin with a small audience of say 200 to 300 people, it's so much more stimulating for me than playing in a stadium, where you sometimes feel like you are playing into a vacuum.
There is something about the effect you have on a big crowd that is unparalleled in terms of excitement but intimacy has its own great rewards.
The thing about the big crowd and the excitement is - you have to play loud and fast to get their attention. You have to play arena music. That's ok, and loads of fun, but it has a very narrow range of expressive possibilities. When you get into a chamber music scene, like we have at Terrapin, the potential for meaningful interplay between the musicians is so much greater. Also, the potential for energy from the audience, the feedback, is clearer somehow.
It's more immediate, less maybe programmed, than a big rock audience’s response. Although, if I may say, to your great credit, to the great credit of the Grateful Dead, to the great credit of the inheritors of the Grateful Dead tradition, you guys invested that arena mode with more subtlety and more nuance than most people that have toiled in those fields. You were able to get quiet. You were able to play a heartbreaking ballad in front of a football stadium full of people and reel them in with that. That's just something I want to credit you guys for because that was a signature accomplishment.
Well, it’s not often humanity is graced with someone like Jerry, whose artistry could capture everyone in a stadium with a single whisper, or three notes played pianissimo and diminuendo.
You've been able to do residencies at places the size of the Capitol and more intimate places - in fact; the Capitol is one of those stops on the upcoming tour.
Yes it is.
That building really has something to it, doesn't it?
It really does. I'm so delighted with what Pete Shapiro has done with the Capitol. He hasn't returned it to anything. He's created a completely new environment. He's done it in a first class way. Everything is done beautifully. The sound is impeccable. The lighting is fabulous. The team he has assembled is as easy to work with as anybody I've ever encountered. It's truly a joy to go and play there. It sounds great too and it's not too large.
They're fully cognizant of the history of the place and they respect that history but they've also put in everything it needs to be a fully modern, state-of-the-art venue and that's a great combination.
Yes it is. Yes it is.
You're also playing a place where you also have some history - the Best Buy Theater that was the home to some Phil & Friends residencies and also a Furthur residency. You like to settle into a room rather than do a bunch of one-nighters in bigger places.
Yea, that's the paradigm now. I think I can say without giving too much away that that's a similar thing to what we're going to be doing next year.
The residency concept rather than one-offs...
I'm off the bus.
[Laughs] If anyone has ever earned the right to be off the bus, it's as permanent a passenger as you've been.
Basically, with this tour what we are trying to do is bring a little bit of what we do at Terrapin out there, as a taste of what we're going to be doing next year. So one of the things we've been doing down at Terrapin is what we call concept shows or song dramas, over a couple or sometimes three nights. We'll pick a theme. For instance, in August, we did two concept shows, which were basically Death and Life. We had just lost Levon, and a dear friend of ours had passed in January. The show actually fell on Jerry's death day. We did these two shows with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams and John Kadlecik and some other players. We dressed up the room, decorated it in a certain way. The first night started with almost absolute darkness and the choir in the corner singing "Death Don't Have No Mercy" in organum fourths.
Then Teresa came on and sang "That Great Gig in the Sky." It started out that way. We went through all kinds of decay and death related material. Larry did that Trent Reznor song "Hurt" that Johnny Cash did. It was stunning, the effect that it has.
The next day we did “Turn Turn Turn”, “Forever Young”, the “Wheel”, “Timshel” and other tunes celebrating life. On this tour, we are focusing on albums. We've picked 7 albums and we're going to sprinkle them throughout our sets to give them a thread. As you may know, American Jubilee is going to open for us. They are: Brian Lesh, Ross James, Scott Padden, Craig MacArthur, and Alex Koford, who, along with Grahame, are the first generation of young musicians at Terrapin. They're going to play a short set before we start and in their set, they're going to do a song or two from each album. Then we'll continue with it in our set. We'll play through the albums that way, in order, combining them with Grateful Dead and other material. It'll give a thread to each show instead of it just being a collection of songs.
That speaks to something that has been a source of conversation in the Dead world - changing the process by which you put together a show is in a way it's own form of musical composition.
Hidebound Grateful Dead traditionalists - and we know there are some out there - who say, "they're playing from a written set list, therefore they're not just making it up as they go along"...
But we never did. There's always some kind of a list in your head...
Or there were discussions of several blocks of songs you would perform in the course of a set but writing the set list out in advance gives you another whole set of parameters to experiment with.
It gives you an idea of how you can make these transitions work. One of my recurring themes about this music is the "islands in the stream" concept where the stream or the current is the improvisation and the songs are the little islands that you visit while you are following this stream. Threading albums through the set is a cool way to define the current.
I wanted to mention, since we did bring up Anders Osbourne and Luther Dickinson, we also know that Grahame Lesh is in the band that is going out and we should mention Jason Crosby…congratulations to the Bay Area for luring him away from New York...
He's really a triple threat kind of guy.
I was thinking it was about time for a trade off because New York has benefitted from so many Bay Area players who've moved here that it is a good thing we've tossed one back to you folks.
We're luring some more. I'm working on some other guys to come out - although most of the time people are leaning towards doing that. We've even had people move out to San Rafael to be close to Terrapin.
It's an amazing thing because for many years Marin did not have an active players scene. The players would go into San Francisco or they'd go on tour to play. It's a place where a lot of musicians lived but there wasn't a real active playing scene there. Now suddenly between Terrapin and TRI and Sweetwater being open again, it's thriving as it hasn't in years.
The whole scene kind of hid out in Fairfax. There's two or three clubs in Fairfax that had live music almost every night, mostly all local guys. We considered trying to put Terrapin in Fairfax but it didn't work out which was just as well because we are in the perfect spot now.
Another amazing serendipity.
Boy, I'll tell ya.
Let's also mention Tony Leone on drums.
Tony who also plays mandolin and guitar and sings… When he comes out to Terrapin, he's like a mainstay of the bar shows with mandolin and voice because he has access to all those cool songs. His wife sings with Amy Helm in Ollabelle. We're hoping to have Fiona come and sing a couple songs with us too in New York while we are there.
Fantastic. Tony is also known as a stalwart member of the extended Levon Helm and Midnight Rambles family but people just think of him as a roots music player... I've heard him play in some jazz settings. He did a one-night sit-in with Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra here in New York. Steven is a well-known tormentor of drummers because he'll throw a brand new chart at a guy who is just sitting in for the night. He'll say, “read it cold.” Tony just swung like mad on all these charts. So he can go into the wide-open spaces with you guys with no problem whatsoever I would imagine.
It's very true. I love playing with Tony. He loves the music and that just exudes from him.
He is a very joyous player.
Some people would think of it surprising, if they were to sum up Phil Lesh as the avant-garde or the jazz guy in the Grateful Dead, if they were going to assign each Grateful Dead member a strong suit or wheelhouse, but you have really been leaning toward this very roots based music. You can still go play with Scofield and Medeski and go there with no problem but there has been a lot of real roots based music and I would have to think that Levon's influence had a lot to do with that.
You would have to be right because that all came about when Grahame and Brian and I went to the barn for the first time. We did our little show and then Levon's band came on with all the horns and the back-up singers. I realized then what the Barn and the Midnight Rambles are: a temple of American song. It completely turned me around. I mean, I still want to get crazy but I want it to have a roots base - kind of like the Grateful Dead.
Absolutely. The wonderful thing about the Grateful Dead is you all absorbed the influences of each other and you all learned from each other. None of you would have been the players that you became without what each person contributed.
At Terrapin, that tradition is continuing. It's not only that I'm learning from everybody, we're all learning from each other- just as you said.
It was really great to see you by the way, recently, at the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia.
That was great fun.
That was also exemplary by the design of Pete Shapiro and Dave Fry putting that festival together and encouraging that kind of interaction between musicians from disparate backgrounds and scenes. Or some old friends getting a chance to play together again, so seeing you play over the course of several days with Trey and with Zac Brown and with Susan Tedeschi and Jimmy Herring was just a hoot.
Again, that's Pete's vision, which I subscribe to whole-heartedly as you can imagine.
Unless I make it down to Mexico in January, those may be my last Furthur shows for a while but I couldn't think of a better send-off. I did want to touch on Furthur for a minute. Furthur is going on hiatus after 4 years of service to the music that I think has been quite noble. Do you feel like you guys accomplished what you set out to do from the inception of Furthur?
Basically, Furthur came into being because Bob and I wanted to play together. We have definitely done that over the last four years. It seems like a good time to step back and take a fresh look at everything. Bob's going to have some surgery on his shoulder this next month and I'm ready to get off the road. I've got all kinds of things that I've got going on, Bob has his new sandbox (TRI) and his TV show, and he's going to bring back RatDog next year. That said, I look forward very much to playing with Bob in different contexts over next year and beyond.
It's only for the good of the musicians in terms of growth and in terms of fresh perspective. I suspect since Joe Russo has been a regular member of the whole Phil & Friends rotation and Jeff Chimenti has been and also plays with RatDog, I think we're going to see smaller subsets of Furthur getting together.
I’m planning to play with John Kadlecik, Jeff Chimenti, and Joey Russo frequently. Not necessarily at the same time, however…
So rather than less music, there will probably be more and of greater diversity...
I think everyone can agree that's a good thing.
I hope so. I do.
Can I see a show of hands? No objections? Ok! [laughs]
Well, Phil, it is always a pleasure to talk to you. It's been awhile. Chewing the fat with you about music is a favorite pastime of mine and I hope we get to do it again soon.
I actually didn’t know that you were curating the Grateful Dead channel but yes, any time you want to talk, give me a call and I’ll talk for the tape.
Oh man, am I ever going to hold you to that. I don’t really curate it. It’s kind of a run away train of its own volition. It exists and we have tremendous support from the community. It’s very heartening to know that people just can’t get enough of this stuff. You should be quite proud of that as well.
That’s great. God bless their little pea pickin’ hearts as my mom used to say.
Your mother and Tennessee Ernie Ford…
[Laughs] That’s probably where she got it.
That was his catchphrase. Listen, before you go, because this is an old pre-occupation of yours and mine, we always like to turn people in the Grateful Dead audience on to stuff that might be outside their comfort zone musically… so anything you’ve been listening to lately that has been blowing your mind?
There is this British composer Thomas Ades. He has composed some stunning music, notably an opera on Shakespeare’s Tempest. There are also some recordings of orchestral music and chamber music available. His most recent piece was played at the Proms in London last summer. It’s called Totentanz – dance of death. It was 30 minutes with two singers and an orchestra, based on a a text that accompanied an altarpiece triptych in a mediaeval church in Lüneburg, Germany (destroyed in WW2) that shows Death- speaking with the Pope, with a peasant, with a lawyer, even with a small child. They were saying it was the most important commission for the Proms in the last ten years. If anybody gets the chance to hear that, it’s very powerful.
Alright, some light listening for you folks.
Well, we don’t want to make it too easy. [laughs]
No. You never did and you never will.
Phil, have a great tour. I just want to remind folks that Phil Lesh & Friends will be making three stops for some residencies on the East Coast starting on Halloween Night – a great place to start - at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. Four nights at the Capitol, followed by five nights at the Best Buy Theater in New York City, and finishing up with three nights at the historic and beautiful Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.