March 15th is Phil Lesh’s 70th birthday. He is celebrating at the Bill Graham Civic Center in San Francisco with his and Bob Weir’s Further project.
With a formal music education in classical, jazz, and theory, Phil provided the method to the Grateful Dead’s collective madness. Phil’s bass was the glue that held the band together, even on the most uninspired nights. When his band mates blew their royalty checks on drugs and cars, Phil would kick down surprise grants to his favorite up and coming avant garde composers. Instead of riding on the tour bus, Phil would pack up the wife and kids, rent a car and drive into the shows with the fans.
I’ve taken many samples from that ecstatic and transcendent sound-world known as “The Phil Zone.” I wanted to go beyond just the top ten best versions of “Box of Rain.” Here are Phil’s “Seastones” experiments with Ned Lagin, his trumpet solo on “Born Cross Eyed,” some of his most recent recordings as well as the earliest known, a piece of real-gone beatnik jazz from 1959. I’ve also included a few tracks from his post-Grateful Dead career as well. The rotating cast of musicians that make up his “Friends” in Phil Lesh and Friends have featured some talented hands: Warren Haynes, Chris Robinson, Trey Anastasio, Larry Campbell, John Molo, as well as a young firebrand from Sacramento named Jackie Green.
I included a spunky version of “Wave to the Wind” — the much-reviled song was a continuous work in progress between 1992 and 1994. “Wave” was an ambitious tune that never really landed with the audience. This version is as good as they come, and the “Terrapin Station” that follows is one for the ages. Also from 1994 is an acoustic rendition of another Phil composition, “Childhood’s End” — a really cool tune that never had the chance to develop, arriving late in the repertoire and being played only a handful of times.
Instead of the usual end-of-the-tour encore “Brokedown Palace,” Jerry opted for the somber “Black Muddy River” on that July 4th night at Soldier Field. After a horrible tour and with Garcia’s physical deterioration on full display, Phil couldn’t leave it at that. He rallied the band together and performed a strong “Box of Rain” as a second encore to ascend into the Chicago air. The Grateful Dead ended their final show with these words: “Such a long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.” Phil Lesh, now older than my father’s father, continues to play rock and roll and make generations dance, laugh, and smile. Thanks for the music, Mr. Lesh.
“Finnegan’s Awake” Phil Lesh – Lead Trumpet, Arranger and Composer, San Mateo College Jazz Band 4/5/1959
“Born Cross Eyed” (single version) Grateful Dead 1967
“Childhood’s End” Phil, Jerry, Bobby, Vince acoustic Berkeley 1994
“Box of Rain” Grateful Dead, Hampton 1988
“Pride of Cucamonga” Further, New York City 2010
“Unbroken Chain” Phil Lesh and Friends, San Francisco 2004
“New Potato Caboose” Grateful Dead, Los Angeles 1967
Eyes of the World” Grateful Dead, Wisconsin 1973
“The Other One” Grateful Dead, Eugene 1978
“Viola Lee Blues” Phil Lesh and Friends, San Francisco 2004
Terrapin Station” Grateful Dead, Indiana 1993
“Brown Eyed Women” Phil Lesh and Friends, San Francisco 2008
“Philo Jam” (“Dark Star” excerpt) Cleveland 1972
“Shakedown Street” Grateful Dead with Branford Marsalis, New York City 1991
“Seastones Jam>Playing In the Band” Paris 1974
“Til the Morning Comes” Further, Asheville 2009
Stravinsky’s “Infernal Dances” (from The Firebird Suite) Phil Lesh conducting the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra 1994