Nowadays, in the world of music entertainment, the typical band has a stable and well-known roster of performers; those performers are the primary reason you choose to attend one performance versus another, after all.
And the typical tour has a stable and predictable program, drawn from an obvious repertoire; the most common justification for a tour nowadays is to promote a new album release, and hence it's almost universal to expect that the performance will consist primarily of material from that new release.
Phil Lesh is typical in neither way.
Lesh, one of the founders and the former bass player for the Grateful Dead, has evolved a most interesting and unusual performance style which he calls "Phil Lesh and Friends".
After more than 50 years as a professional musician, Lesh has an enormous number of musical contacts, as well as an extensive and diverse collection of material.
There are even those who give him credit for how the band got its name:
What matters for our purposes is that Wenner, arguably the 20th century’s most important and influential rock journalist and publisher, got his scoop on the band’s name directly from the its bassist, Phil Lesh, who played an important role in giving the band its name—it was at Lesh’s home that Jerry Garcia came upon the phrase "The Grateful Dead" in "a big Oxford Dictionary," as Garcia remembers it in Signpost. That may be why the name was so fresh in Lesh’s mind when he told Wenner "We’re the Grateful Dead."”
And, perhaps most importantly, he has wide-ranging interests and a genuine joy of performance, which drive him to find ways to continue playing and interacting with his audience.
So, his format (roughly) is this: every so often, Lesh contacts some number of his friends, who clear time on their schedule, and make some arrangements to meet and discuss and prepare.
Then, at the appointed date, and at the appointed location, Phil Lesh and Friends appear, and deliver their show.
It's never the same show twice.
You never know ahead of time who's going to be in the band (except, of course, for Lesh).
And you never know ahead of time what will be on the program (although, broadly speaking, you know what sort of material it will be, since after 50 years everybody knows what sort of music Lesh enjoys).
It's a pretty unusual format. And, given that Lesh is now 75 years old, and has had numerous health problems (liver transplant, prostate cancer, bladder cancer), you never know how much longer you might get a chance to see him in action.
And so it came to be that, mostly as an excuse for a far-too-long-postponed visit to my very oldest and dearest friends on the planet, we hopped on the plane and I came to be in Port Chester, New York, on November 6th and 7th, 2015.
It's worth, as a side-note, mentioning why, specifically, we were in Port Chester. Although the Capitol Theatre was famous, 45 years ago, as the site of some of The Grateful Dead's most famous shows, the theater had become disused and was idle until recently. However, as part of its re-opening, Lesh was named "musician in residence" and has been playing there regularly, and it is clearly one of his favorite places to play.
It's hard to over-state the difference between seeing a show at the Capitol Theatre versus almost any other that shows acts of this caliber. The theater holds fewer than 2,000 people; in contrast, when I saw The Grateful Dead in June here in California, there were nearly 50 times as many people in the audience, and we spent the time watching the show on 70-foot-tall video screens, for the most part.
But at the Capitol, the space is small and friendly and personal. You can almost imagine that you have been invited into their living room and you are sitting on the couch, listening to them play and sing and talk and relax.
Well, you and your 1,799 new best friends, that is.
So, on to the music.
During this particular event, Phil Lesh's friends were David Nelson, Barry Sless, Scott Law, Jason Crosby, and John Molo.
Of those musicians, David Nelson is probably the most famous. He might be best known for his group New Riders of the Purple Sage, but he also played with the Grateful Dead many a time back in the day; for instance, he plays the electric guitar on the recording of Jack Straw on American Beauty. As the group's web site recalls:
In the summer of 1969, John Dawson was looking to showcase his songs while Jerry Garcia was looking to practic his brand new pedal steel guitar. The two played in coffeehouses and small clubs initially, and the music they made became the nucleus for a band - the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
That same year, David Nelson, expert in both country and rock guitar, joined the group on electric lead guitar.
As you might expect from this line-up, the selection of music for the two shows included several New Riders songs: John Hardy's Wedding, Garden of Eden, Bob Dylan's The Wicked Messenger, and of course their signature song, The Adventures of Panama Red.
And naturally there were a broad range of Grateful Dead signature songs, including several of Lesh's own compositions: Box of Rain (which is a personal favorite of mine), Pride of Cucamonga, Mason's Children (which disappeared from the Dead's regular rotation long before I started following them closely), and Unbroken Chain, as well as Grateful Dead classics not so closely linked with Lesh, such as Jack Straw (led, as a delightful surprise, by Lesh's son Grahame Lesh on vocals and guitar), Uncle John's Band, Dire Wolf, Cold Rain and Snow, and Scarlet Begonias
Perhaps because of the musicians that were particularly present for these concerts, the music selection also drew from the Grateful Dead's long history of blues, bluegrass, boogie-woogie, and jug band traditions, including pieces such as Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad, White Lightning, Loose Lucy, Turn On Your Love Light, and Not Fade Away
But most interesting of all, musically, I think, was the inclusion of three fairly unusual songs from an American musician who is not so well known at all, I think: Noah Lewis. Let's let AllMusic.com's biography of Lewis tell some of his story:
A key figure on the Memphis jug band circuit of the 1920s, singer and harpist Noah Lewis was born on September 3 of either 1890 or 1895 (depending on sources) in Henning, Tennessee. Upon relocating to Memphis, he teamed with Gus Cannon, becoming an essential component of Cannon's Jug Stompers; the group made their debut recordings for the Paramount label in 1927, with several more sessions to follow prior to their final date in late 1930. On a series of sides cut in the first week of October 1929, Lewis made his debut as a name artist, cutting three blistering harmonica solos as well as "Going to Germany," which spotlighted his plaintive vocal style. Later recording with Yank Rachell and John Estes, as the Depression wore on Lewis slipped into obscurity, living a life of extreme poverty; his death on February 7, 1961 was a result of gangrene brought on by frostbite.
Lewis died before I was even born; this is OLD music as far as things go in American music history.
What is the "Jug Band"? Well, again, let's turn to AllMusic.com's site for more information:
Jug bands united Appalachian folk with blues, ragtime, and very early jazz; they are best known, of course, for their novel, do-it-yourself instrumentation. The jug in question was usually a whiskey jug, and a player blew across the mouth of the jug to produce pitches in the bass register. Jug bands usually featured at least one stringed instrument from the Appalachian tradition -- guitar, banjo, and/or fiddle -- and used a wide variety of everyday, easily available household objects for rhythmic accompaniment. The most common were the washboard (whose slats were struck and rubbed in a way analogous to a snare drum) and the metal washtub bass, which was usually equipped with a broomstick and clothesline that produced the sounds. Other possible percussion instruments included spoons, gut buckets, bones, and saw blades; additional melodic accompaniment might have included a harmonica, kazoo, or even comb and tissue paper -- whatever was available and economical, really. Jug band music originated in Louisville, Kentucky at the dawn of the 1900s, but found its greatest popularity in Memphis, Tennessee during the '10s and '20s, eventually spreading to Ohio and North Carolina as well. Given the inherent playfulness of the instrumentation, jug band music was accordingly informal, spontaneous, often humorous, and rhythmically bouncy.
Jug Band music and The Grateful Dead have gone together for at least 50 years, of course, but it was quite pleasing to me to see the selection of three of Noah Lewis's pieces in Saturday's program: Minglewood Blues, Big Railroad Blues, and Viola Lee Blues.
The three songs have some interesting differences. Big Railroad Blues is a crowd-pleasing sing-along, a blues song with a light-hearted sense of irony and and humor, as our hero sings:
Well my mama told me, my papa told me too,
Now my mama told me, papa told me too,
Well I shouldn't be here tryin' to sing these railroad blues.
Wish I had a'listened to what my mama said,
Wish I had a'listened to what my mama said,
Well I wouldn't be here tryin' to sleep in this cold iron bed.
The answer to where exactly is this "Minglewood" is a bit uncertain. I have read somewhere that it was a lumber camp near the Mississippi where musicians (including Noah lewis and Gus cannon) gathered on weekends to have a good time, and judging from the lyrics of the "New Minglewood Blues" that Noah Lewis recorded with his own jug band ("If you’re ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood"), it was a place in the city or close to it.Make sure you follow the link from that site to The Myth of Minglewood for more backstory about Minglewood.
But, for my tastes, the best of the three Noah Lewis songs was the third one, the heart-breaking and beautiful Viola Lee Blues. This song meant so much to Lesh and the rest of The Grateful Dead that they made it the 10 minute long epic climax of their first actual album.
The wonderful Grateful Dead Guide site discusses the 50 year history of The Grateful Dead's history with the song, and how it morphed and evolved through the years; it's clear that it meant a tremendous amount to them.
Viola Lee Blues was the Dead's first big jamming tune. Dating from the start of their career when they were doing mostly pop and blues songs, they designed it as a psychedelic trip: it would start as a strange old jugband tune with dark chords, a constricted groove, and wailing black-harmony vocals, but the music in-between the verses would gradually stretch out to unreasonable lengths and start accelerating until the band were playing fast, shrieking gusts of sound, tearing open the fabric of reality -- then suddenly the noise stops and the song jauntily reappears again. As one writer has said, it may have been a one-dimensional song, but that happened to be the fifth dimension!
You can find many of The Grateful Dead renditions on the net, of course, but here's an alternate suggestion instead: listen to this wonderful performance by Jim Kweskin's Jug Band while you follow on with the lyrics here, since they're a bit hard to make out until you've heard the song a few hundred times:
The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it.
Clerk he wrote it down indeed-e
Judge decreed it, clerk he wrote it down
Give you this jail sentence you'll be Nashville bound
Some got six month some got one solid.
Some got one solid year indeed-e
Some got six month some got one solid.
But me and my buddies all got lifetime here
I wrote a letter I mailed in the air,
Mailed it on the air indeed-e
I wrote a letter I mailed in the air.
You may know by that I've got a friend somewhere
It's nearly a hundred years since Noah Lewis penned his sorrowful, tragic, heart-breaking tale of injustice, loneliness, and despair, but that amazing, glorious final verse, with its simple recognition that that simple act of writing a letter, of reaching out, of trying to communicate with some other human being somewhere else, has the power to overcome that cruelty and show the world that "I've got a friend somewhere."
fast, shrieking gusts of sound, tearing open the fabric of realityindeed.
So even though there were lots of wonderful, wonderful things to remember about these shows, the sentiment of this majestic hundred-year-old song appealed to me on my madcap visit to my friends-of-four-decades, and somehow it seemed the perfect way for me to try to make sense of the entire experience.