Monday, July 2, 2007

Back to the Beginning...

(caution: long; almost 2,500 words)

Living in Montana doesn't give a Deadhead many short-drive-away chances to see shows. In early '98 I decided to pass on a trip to San Fran to see two nights with Ratdog for Mardi Gras. Instead I got a week off from work in March to go on a week-long roadtrip to see a few Ratdog shows on their 1998 Spring Tour. Of course, what I didn't know is I should have chosen Option A and gone to SF. A) it's San Francisco! B) it's Ratdog in San Francisco! C) it's a Mardi Gras celebration with Ratdog in San Francisco! And D) the following little wing ding of a show was announced and it was just a couple nights after the two RD shows. But I was stuck with Option B and perhaps it was for the best. Getting a ticket to this show would quite possibly have been impossible.

Phil Lesh & Friends 2-27-98
The Fillmore, San Francisco

1st Set
Hell In A Bucket, Sugaree,
Queen Jane Approximately Playing In The Band
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo,
Bird Song, West L.A. Fadeaway

2nd Set
Mountains Of The Moon,
Lost Sailor Saint Of Circumstance,
The Other One, Wild Horses, Dark Star
China Cat Sunflower I Know You Rider,
St. Stephen Not Fade Away

Encore 1: Like A Rolling Stone
E2: Ripple

Take 2/3 of Ratdog, a pinch of Franks, and a heapin' helpin' of Lesh and what do you get? You get the Phil & Bobby Show or Phil & Bobby & Friends or the very first show called Phil Lesh & Friends. You also get Rebirth, Evolution, History.

I've heard a lot of Phil & Friends in the past nine years and looking at all the setlists since 1998, nothing played here is new... but wait, yes, much of it is. The key to comprehending the unbelievableness of this show is to, while listening to it, transport yourself back to that very date in time. Feel as though nothing since has yet to take place.

Hell In A Bucket starts the night in a rockin' way. Only one song in and essentially this is just sounding like Ratdog but with guitarist Stan Franks sitting in for Matt Kelly and Phil subbing for Rob W. Except, something about it just wasn't Ratdog at all. There's a certain electricity in the air... almost... Dead-like. This mostly sounds like RD... but with Phil up there this is special and the crowd is soaking up every ounce of this Bucket. Ratdog-like, Dead-ish, call it what you like -- it doesn't matter 'cause there's Phil & Bobby!

Back in this period of time, there was quite a bit of animosity towards Bobby singing Jerry songs. Some thought he shouldn't even be playing them. "Go and do your own songs, Bob, that's fine. But don't touch what Jerry sang." Well, several tunes had been busted out up until this point, and several more were played during acoustic and show-ending jam sets on the Furthur Festival the summer before.

Apparently Phil either wasn't paying attention to what some folks were thinking and saying... or he just thought they were wrong. After Bucket the fans at the Fillmore got a treat that no one expected to hear, a song a million Deadheads thought they'd never hear again -- Sugaree. It had only been 2½ years since Jer checked out and emotions were still running pretty deep. Reviews for Bobby doing Jerry are mixed but what about Phil? Most of the crowd on this night seemed to be in awe. "We Want Phil" was a common chant at Dead shows. Now here he was and not only singing, but singing Sugaree? This is brand new territory for not only the guys on stage but those in attendance, too. Was strange hearing Franks try to light up a little lead guitar where it should be Jerry but for the most part he let Ratdog's Jeff Chimenti and Dave Ellis fill in the empty spaces while Bobby & Phil did their usual bit on rhythm and bass. This dear old Jerry favorite chugged along and near the end the band really pulled it so sweetly together. Wow! No, the bus hasn't stopped at all... in fact, the batteries are charged, there's a full tank of gas, and a few more passengers just got on!

A beautifully Ratdog Queen Jane followed, easily sliding into Playin'. This isn't really Ratdog, this is a band that wants to explore some other places. That clearly shows as Playin', which started up normal enough, morphed into something completely different. Some of the sounds Franks was making, I didn't really dig -- like nothing ever heard on a Playin' before -- but you could really hear Bobby keeping it all together... at least for a little while. Somehow the song spiraled away... way away, seemingly and almost magically taking the Fillmore back about 30 years into a sound very reminiscent of the quietest, spaceyest Dark Star jams from an era a long, long time ago. The song seriously got to a point where you could almost imagine Bobby & Phil looking at each other and one of them going, "Uhhh... how did we get here? And how do we get out of this?" The answer would be a shrug of the shoulders sayin', "I dunno. Beats me!" But, no problem really, they steered out of Playin' okay. Remember, they've been doing this music thing for awhile now. Even without Jerry leading the crew, these guys were perfectly capable of steering the ship where it needed to go.

The spacey jam that Playin' turned into wound down to its ultimate end, almost coming back thanks to some very familiar bass notes by Phil. Instead the boys took a total left turn into more new territory, a Jerry-less Half-Step. Wow! Okay. That was unexpected! Listening to this was so enjoyable and I was nearly speechless. At one point Franks came alive on guitar, for the first real time all night, and we got a taste of this guy's ability. He played some Jerry but he also gave what flowed from his fingers his own signature allowing the song to be so bittersweet. I was overwhelmed. Yet again another moment of pure Wow!

More Hunter/Garcia was up next. For the '97 Furthur Festival, Bobby resurrected Bird Song during the Bob & Rob and Friends acoustic "Thrust Jam" set. He then Ratdog debuted the tune a few months later on their '97 Fall Tour. It hasn't been played all that much so far but a bunch of people around the country have already heard it. But here it gets its P&F debut. Dave Ellis seemed to lead the way at times, really blowing a Branford-esque sax sound. Not to disrespect Jerry but there was no need at all for lead guitar here. Nicely played by all.

To close out the set was something that made me wonder who had setlist say in this very first night of Phil & Friends -- Lesh or Weir? West L.A. Fadeaway has been done by Bobby since Furthur '96 so one's gotta guess it was his call. Is Phil that much of a phan of this song? Maybe Phil was just happy to be playing along no matter what Dead song it was. A mystery to this listener.

In any case, the set didn't end on any Don't Ease kind of high but the feeling of what was just experienced was nothing less than pure exhilaration. From start to finish, what a great, great 73 minutes of music. If the night ended right here, life would be complete.

Don't walk out now, still one more set to go! The guys came back on stage and began tuning, tuning, tuning. What would the first song be? They knew. We had no idea. Ears listened intently for recognizable notes. Tuning, tuning, tuning. Funny thing is, after a couple minutes, the tuning did begin to get familiar but still no one knew exactly what they were about to go into. Three and a half minutes later, finally... applause as the song began in earnest. It was a relatively quiet applause, maybe from only half the house while the other half was in shocked disbelief at exactly what this 2nd Set opening song is. Could it really be... no, really, seriously?!? Listening to the very first Mountains Of The Moon in a mere 28½ years, I was paralyzed and you could so easily tell most everyone in the Fillmore was as well. If life was complete at the conclusion of the 1st Set, kill me now 'cause nothing in this world can get any better than this. From a hundred to a gazillion words I can sit down and chat or type on almost anything... but this is one instance that has left me next to speechless.

Soon it would be Bob who would be getting his very own Holy Freakin' Sweet moment as he launched into Lost Sailor. Even though this was busted out by Ratdog earlier in the month, and played a second time just a couple days before in this very room, almost no one's heard this in 12 years! While perhaps to a slightly lesser degree (I mean, how could you beat Mtns of the Moon?!) the stunned silence widely remained throughout the house, interspersed by moments of purely audible joy at the proceedings thus far. And like it's been done as if the Dead and Jerry never stopped playing the popular combo, in comes Saint of Circumstance. It may be a tune that was in regular GD and now RD rotation but the triple play of Sailor->Saint following Mountains has accomplished pure ecstasy.

As the end of Saint wound down, the band jazzed their way nicely into The Other One. Here was a big disappointment... sort of. After the night we've had so far, why, oh why, didn't they set this up so Phil could drop huge bombs thundering into the song rather than just gliding in the way they did? Oh man, oh well. Not ready yet, I suppose. That's alright... Phil got the spotlight again as a beautiful Wild Horses followed. He did this just a few weeks before while sitting in with the David Gans band Broken Angels and the crowd was lucky to get it tonight. So gorgeous.

Before the first notes of the next tune began, there was a very brief time of pausing, unfortunately. Quickly we knew what was on the setlist sheet but there was no beautiful segue from Phil into it as there really should have been. What insane magic the crowd would have experienced from that, especially for such a treasured and beloved Grateful Dead song which is what Dark Star is. Even still, during the first few moments of this first post-Jerry playing, there were probably 1,200 people simultaneously checking their pulses to make sure they were alive and/or not off in a deep state of dreamland. Was this night really happening?! Will the world outside of Fillmore & Geary really believe us that this all truly went down???

It didn't matter that this was far from the best Dark Star ever performed. This isn't the Dead. This isn't a tribute band but in a way it is a tribute and it's a new beginning of carrying on this music for everyone who wants to hear it live and in person. And for Bobby & Phil perhaps this is a form of therapy, to help ease the pain from that tremendous loss from their lives. This Dark Star may not be pure greatness... but this Dark Star is pure greatness and we should all be thankful to hear it!

Another GD favorite was up next and sadly, for me, it really didn't match the Dead on even their most off night. Again we get another very recently reintroduced tune. Ratdog had their debut of Sailor at a small Mill Valley benefit show a couple weeks before and just 48 hours ago Bobby busted out one more Jerry in the form of China Cat Sunflower. There was no China->Rider a couple nights ago, but he & Phil decided to try that out tonight. Rider alone has been in RD rotation since mid-1996 and I've really dug hearing it. But China Cat Sunflower needs some work. It was appreciated by the crowd but I'm wondering now why they decided to put it so late in the show. Again, it's just another oh well thing. Could perfection on this night really be expected? A beautiful thing, yes indeed... but not perfection.

As it has been proven tonight, a Wow moment can come out of nowhere and knock everyone right on their ass. While China->Rider hummed along, no one expected Phil to step up and belt out the "I wish I was a headlight" verse. Ho... ly... Cow. This went from almost coverband-ish to a heaven-like state of being in two seconds flat. He may be about two months late but, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus... he's actually Phil Lesh!

Hey, Santa, who's that guy on keys? Jeff who? As Phil was introducing the band before the next song, he messed up Chimenti's last name. Ha! He said sorry and got it right, and then mentioned the others concluding with, "My friend, Bob Weir." Awwwww. And then, yes, there really really is a Santa Claus because wow, with just two little guitar notes, everyone knew the next tune could be none other than St. Stephen. No. Noooooo. Really? Is this just a tease? The crowd was ecstatic. It was a moment of purely stunned enthusiam which quieted down into that recurring theme of stunned silence. After 14½ years -- finally. The Fillmore became a theater in awe.

The Not Fade Away that followed almost seemed a letdown. For some maybe it was just background music while their mind processed the proceedings. Others danced and enjoyed and even used NFA to celebrate this night of return, this night of rebirth, this night of history.

Encores weren't needed but they came out for Phil singing something he had also done a month earlier with The Broken Angels, the Dylan classic Like A Rolling Stone. After that great debut the boys left and came back out a second time, this time with Bobby and Franks on acoustic to sing maybe the most beloved Hunter/Garcia song ever -- Ripple. Once again not the best ever. How could a Jerry-less version ever be better? No way. But it's a Garcia song the crowd doesn't just love but absolutely adores with every ounce of heart and soul. While rejoicing in the incredible atmosphere this night has created, this Ripple may truly have been a wonderfully understated way to remember help Jerry.

And now, even after two whole days have gone by since I listened to this show, I'm breathless still. Whether you were there or not, what an amazing night that was. Not perfect by any means but without a doubt nothing less than magical.

Thanks Jill & Rob Rightmyer for the recording!


Sam said...

Great great great review. It's like I was there in the audience. Thanks for sharing man.

Jane said...

Hey Chris, thanks for visiting my blog. I lived in Bergen County for many years and I taught there for 8 years before moving to LA. Yes, we have school in the summer, but they have all of October off (Think no school on Halloween!) and another month off in the spring. Still, I agree with you it's a bummer in some ways. I tried to scalp at a Dead show at the Meadowlands years ago. I didn't get in, but the unending tailgate was pretty fun. Off course that was the summer Jerry died so I never did see them play. Have a great summer!

one says one number and the other another
but they were set at the same time. Hmmm...

Calvin and Hobbes in the snow -- animated