First of all, before we get to the blow by blow of the March 12 Phil Lesh Birthday Bash/Unbroken Chain fundraiser for Haiti at the Bill Graham Civic in SF, let’s all pause for moment to salute the miracle that Phil even had a 70th birthday to celebrate, and to appreciate all the fantastic music that has come out of the ol’ boy since his life-saving liver transplant 11 years ago. It’s been a helluva ride, and here’s to many more!
The show itself was pretty much a rollicking good time from beginning to end from my perspective, filled with one unexpected pleasure after another, but also kinda messy in that way that shows get when there are a lot of people onstage blowing at once. People hoping to get their first dose of this still relatively new Furthur lineup definitely didn’t get a “normal” Furthur show—they got more, but also something with a much different character than Furthur. Furthur played so beautifully and cohesively on this lengthy tour they just wrapped up, and there were moments at the Birthday Bash when the personality of that group shone through the din created by three and four guitars, seven singers, two keyboardists, two drummers and, of course, the 9,000-voice Bill Graham Civic Choir, which got a nice workout all evening. But really, this was more a one-off party than a capping gig for the Furthur tour, and as such we need discuss it in the context of the loose spirit that dominated the affair.
It was clear from the get-go we were in for something special. Joining the regular Furthur front line of Phil, Bob, Jeff and John K. was Black Crowes lead singer and former Phil Lesh & Friends veteran Chris Robinson and two members of the last incarnation of Phil & Friends—singer/guitarist Jackie Greene and keyboardist Steve Molitz. Jay Lane was the lone percussionist for the first set; Joe Russo was the sole skinsman for the second set; and long-time P&F rhythm volcano John Molo was out there for much of the third set.
Robinson, Bob Weir, Jackie Greene, John Kadlecik.
Photo: Bob Minkin/minkindesign.com ©2010
Bob took over again for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and it was quite a version, building verse to verse until it seemed like the whole room was consumed by Dylan’s fiery poetry. “They Love Each Other,” sung by Chris, was another nice treat—easy-going but still delivered with verve. “Mountains of the Moon,” which is consistently among the most interesting songs Phil’s groups have tackled through the years, worked really nicely in this mainly acoustic context, though it was John’s subtle, crying electric guitar textures (after he’d shined on acoustic previously) that made it such a rich sonic tapestry. (That tune—and many others—also benefited from the supportive harmonies of Zoe Ellis and Sunshine Becker.) The set ended with perhaps the emotional highpoint of the whole evening—a gorgeous and sumptuous “Attics of My Life,” which was just about perfect in my view and a great way to end a pretty spectacular set. Our little group was situated dead center in the balcony, maybe four rows from the top and the sound could not have been better. The spot-on harmonies filled every inch of the place with a warm glow.
For set two the band “went electric,” Jay was replaced by Joe Russo (it’s not clear why they didn’t play together), and the segment opened with Jackie leading a kick-ass “Scarlet Begonias” (which is one of several Dead tunes he performs with his own band). The jam after sounded like it might lead to “Fire on the Mountain,” but it didn’t, instead returning to the classic “Scarlet” ending. I thought “New Minglewood Blues” was beefier than usual, though it seemed to sort of fall apart in places as they were trading solos; I couldn’t tell you how or why, but it felt like someone threw something into the previously well-oiled machine and the gears suddenly went out of whack a bit—the first of a few times this would happen the rest of the night. I was excited to hear “Easy Wind,” but it sounded like Chris and the band were in different keys or something. However the Jackie-sung “New Speedway Boogie” brought the band up to a high level again—what a tremendous version, perfect for these troubled times. As they are wont to do, the band split “Viola Lee Blues” into three fat chunks with some great connective material—first “High Time,” sung superbly by Chris, followed by a brief “Caution” jam that never really went anywhere; after verse two of “Viola Lee” Chris pulled out all the stops on a fantastic “Hard to Handle,” done more Pigpen-style than Black Crowes-style and featuring some exciting vocal riffing near the end. Then, after the last verse of “Viola” the jam eventually landed at another Chris R. triumph—“Like a Rolling Stone,” which managed to galvanize the crowd yet again, and had everyone, it seemed, singin’ along. The way Jackie joined in on the sort of sung-shouted choruses reminded me of The Band backing Dylan on the ragged mid-’70sBefore the Flood version of the tune. And though I prefer Jackie’s version of “Sugaree” to just about anyone else’s, Chris did a fine job on that second-set closer, too.
When we’d arrived hours earlier, we noticed that there was a makeshift pathway marked on the downstairs floor, so it was apparent that there would be some sort of parade or something. The three huge, worm-like bags of balloons suspended over the floor were another tip-off that there was likely to be a party “moment.” Well, as we suspected, all was revealed as the lights went down for the third set. The band assembled onstage and started jamming around what at first sounded like “Iko” to me, but was then quickly revealed to be the shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits beat of “Not Fade Away.”
Photo: Dave Clark / daveclarklive.net © 2009
This time it was a truly short break (the house lights never even went up), and when they came back, they launched immediately into “Playing in the Band,” which was followed by a big jam. In general, I’d say the jamming at this show felt more meandering and less focused than at a regular Furthur show, no doubt a product of having so many guitarists going at once. Jackie’s rough and tumble style clashed with John’s sweeter tones on occasion, and there were definitely times when it all got a little noisy and discordant for my taste. Maybe “too much of everything” can be more than enough. But hey, listen back to ’60s jam sessions with Garcia, Jorma, Barry Melton and whomever and it’s the same deal—brilliant players struggling to find space in a great wash of sound. One positive from the clash of sounds and timbres is that it pushed John out of his safety zone a bit and forced him to move into some fascinating directions. The good news is he embraced the chaos and used it as a springboard for some truly creative playing. And I also really enjoyed having Steve Molitz onstage, sitting back-to-back with Jeff, effectively trading off on organ, piano and synths. But again, all that firepower onstage—not to mention the tandem of Joe Russo and John Molo bashing away on the drums—made for an occasionally overpowering aural assault.
But when that juggernaut rolled into a dynamite “St. Stephen” it was like “the more the merrier”— bring it on! However, my third set highlights were still to come: Steve Molitz’s fantastic, multi-layered instrumental, “Elevator” (which I’d seen P&F tackle a couple of years back) turned out to be one of the best-played tunes of the night—amazing considering it’s complex shifts. I loved Steve’s wheedling analog synths! The concluding jam of “Unbroken Chain” contained what I thought was some of John’s finest work of the evening, and then Chris knocked another one out of the park with a tremendously heart-felt “Comes A Time,” JK again laying down a staggeringly great solo at the close.
Where do you go from there? Well, on this night you bring out two mini-skirted go-go dancers to do the swim-hitchhiker-pony-jerk-frug-boogaloo to that old classic, “Cream Puff War”! (Hey, it worked when Phil & Friends played it during their final Warfield run.) It was speedy and fun, and then with barely a breath, that charged into a high-energy “Franklin’s Tower” to end the set, Phil and Jackie trading verses, with plenty of solos all around. It was five to 2 when the set ended, which may explain why the encore was such a shortie: “Johnny B. Goode,” which was certainly in keeping with the prevailing party mood.
A great night, and Phil has now certainly set the bar high for those of us with significant milestone birthdays coming up in the next couple of years. Hmm. I wonder if I can book those go-go dancers for an April 2113 gig.
(One last note: I think it would have been nice if someone at some point had at least mentioned the word “Haiti” during the evening, lest we forget that this wasn’t just a party for Phil’s 70th, but also a fundraiser for a desperately important cause. But it always feels special when having such a good time can also make the world a better place. Kudos to Furthur and the Unbroken Chain Foundation for making it happen! And it’s never too late to donate: go to unbrokenchainfoundation.org for more info.)