And the 1970s Dead Shall Arise (Sort of) and Jam With a Revolving Cast
The latest version of Phil Lesh and Friends formed a little more than a year ago, which hardly makes it new to Mr. Lesh’s core audience. What kind of bandleader can play 14 shows in a row at a 2,000-capacity hall in New York City? One whose admirers might ritually attend every show, calibrating the shifts and balances, theorizing about meaning. Some in attendance at the Nokia Theater on Monday night, maybe many, weren’t average fans; they were meteorologists at the data center.
The old Phil Lesh and Friends, begun in 2000, was a step away from the gentle, cobwebby sound-world of the Grateful Dead, the band with which the bassist Mr. Lesh spent 30 years. It was loud and dense, full of Warren Haynes’s white-soul singing and red-meat Southern-rock guitar improvising. This new version keeps the solid rock rhythms; the drummer, John Molo, is the only carryover from that earlier group. But it’s a more delicate operation.
It focuses on the music that the Dead played in the 1970s, sometimes folk- and country-tinged. The current lineup includes Larry Campbell, from Bob Dylan’s touring band, on mandolin, fiddle and steel guitar; the chameleonic singer, guitarist and keyboardist Jackie Greene, whose voice suggests a compromise between the Grateful Dead’s two main singers, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir; the keyboardist Steve Molitz; and the singer Teresa Williams.
On Monday, not all the musicians played on every song and the instrumentation changed every five or 10 minutes. And for the run of current shows — advertised as the “Philathon” — the band mutates nightly to accommodate guest musicians.
For the second set on Monday Mr. Haynes sat in, and he was at his best in this porous, malleable music. Instead of ramming home the Southern-rock jamming ideal with thick slide-guitar phrases, he played most of the set in single notes, picking with his fingers. His improvisations on the Dead songs “Passenger” and “Fire on the Mountain” amounted to the most delicate music of the night, finding new motives, changing rhythmic ideas, disappearing into the tangle of notes coming from three guitarists and then resurfacing.
Mr. Campbell was the most consistently rewarding musician onstage, adding strikingly different detail depending on the song. (In “Dire Wolf,” and not enough else, he played pedal-steel guitar with real complexity and drive; by the sound of it he has studied the 1960s heroes of that instrument, particularly Lloyd Green.)
And Mr. Lesh on bass was, effectively, the fourth guitarist, melodically improvising throughout. His playing was the positive counterweight to his voice, pale and inexpressive, and the fact that, at 68, he leaves much less to chance as a bandleader than he once did. He gives instructions to his musicians over a closed-circuit microphone system and reads his lyrics off a prompter.
It can’t be unrelated that some of the show’s peaks came through predictable Dead strategy, as in “New, New Minglewood Blues” and “Dancin’ in the Streets,” when the intertwined soloing guitars built to their narrative climax just at the end of a chorus, and continued on into the next. Still, Mr. Lesh endures. If the Dead’s music was a theory, a kind of Living Constitution, then the whole point is to stretch it into the evolving present. The whirling dancers, bootleg tapers and note-takers at the show would probably agree.