Photo by Dean Budnick
In honor of Phil Lesh’s 80th birthday on Sunday, we look back to this conversation from October 2008.
After dissolving his improv-heavy quintet in 2003, few thought Phil Lesh would find another permanent lineup for his ever-changing solo band. But, following a mention of singer/songwriter Jackie Greene’s name in a promotional interview for the 2006 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Lesh stumbled upon the perfect frontman to anchor Phil Lesh & Friends’ tightest lineup since the group’s classic incarnation.
Despite a limited knowledge of the Grateful Dead’s material, Greene played with Lesh for the first time in 2007 and quickly clicked with not only the bassist, but his core bandmates: mainstay drummer John Molo, Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz (who signed on in 2004) and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (who joined in 2006, following the departure of Jimmy Herring). Settling on a sound that recalls The Dead’s early 1970s roots-inspired prime, as well as Lesh’s more recent collaborations with Ryan Adams, the current incarnation of Phil Lesh & Friends is in many ways the bassist’s first tried-and-true band since the reformed Dead dissolved in 2004. Greene’s vast knowledge of decidedly American musical styles like folk, country, blues and bluegrass has also allowed Lesh to revisit a number of long-retired songs, ranging from signature jams like Bob Weir’s “Truckin’” to more obscure tunes like “Born Cross-Eyed,” along with the occasional acoustic interludes on special occasions.
Below Lesh discusses his upcoming run at New York’s Nokia Theatre, his future recording plans and why he’s kind of like Sarah Palin.
Next week Phil & Friends will open its second residency at New York’s Nokia Theatre. What, specifically, drew you to the Nokia, and do you hope to host similar residencies in other markets?
I’m not always completely up on all the details. The Beacon went dark for a little while, so we were looking around for a place to do what I like to call “long term residences” in cool places that are small enough for good acoustics. [Promoters] AEG came up with the Nokia and it sounded so good in there. It is such a congenial, convenient place. We did well last year, so they invited us back again. I would like to do more residencies with my bands now. Bouncing around on a bus is not my idea of fun [laughter].
Musically, do you approach a residency like a show with its own arc and flow?
Yes, very much so. We try not repeat songs. We had eight days of rehearsal, so we learned lots of new and old stuff. We expanded our repertoire.
Have you written any new songs?
No, not exactly. I have co-written for other projects. Actually, there is one for this band, a song I co-wrote with Warren Haynes.
Earlier this year you played the Grateful Dead’s first seven albums and Dead Set in their entirety at the Warfield. Can you talk a bit about that run specifically? What sparked the idea to revisit that early material?
It was fascinating because a lot of those songs hadn’t been played by me since we recorded them. Songs like “Cream Puff War” we had only done like two times and “Born Cross-Eyed,” I don’t think we ever played live. I don’t know whyit is hard to know why we made decisions like that back in the day. Essentially, it was hard because we were reconstructing the songs. It was a fascinating process because all the parts were a little confused. Because there is a point where you realize you can’t do everything like it was on the original record, so you have to go ahead and interpret it. And that’s where the real fun comes in.
We weren’t trying to be chronologicalwe were trying to do a retrospective. It was my wife’s idea, actually.
At this point, are there any Grateful Dead songs you have yet to play with Phil & Friends that you’d like to pull out of retirement this tour?
Maybe my memory is folding [laughter]. I know I want to bring back a lot more Bobby songs and maybe some old ones that I wrote that never really got off the ground.
Jackie has been doing a great job interpreting Bobby’s vocals.
He’s a real chameleon. It is really handy to have him. At the same time, he doesn’t sound like anyone else. He can channel vocals without imitating them. It’s a rare gift.
You have also been covering Ryan Adams a good deal recently.
Ryan’s talent is so large that it also relates to the Grateful Dead. Cold Roses relates to The Dead even though it has nothing to do with them. His work is absolutely, genetically in sync with our tour set, and so they are in sync with our songs. It’s delightful to use his great songs and tear them apart because their sensibility is so in tune with The Dead. Then there is his other stuff which is equally brilliant, only it covers different genres.
What was your introduction to his music?
The Jammys [in 2005]. The goal was to have people from the jamband world play with people they normally wouldn’t play with, which is a fantastic idea by the way. So when they had me host the Jammys, and they had me play with John Mayer, Buddy Guy and ?ustlove from The Roots. Then they had me playing with Ryan, but I hadn’t heard his music. I went on iTunes and got his latest album Cold Roses, and I was just entranced by it, “Yes, oh YES.” All those shock of recognition sounds. And when I met and we played together, I thought, “This guy is really a kindred spirit.” His life is a jam, and he has opened up musically since then. It is wonderful to see how that’s all developed. I’m a big Ryan Adams fan.
Speaking of unlikely collaborations, your agent Jonathan Levine played drums with Phil & Friends recently.
Yeah, I guess back in the day he was a Grateful Dead cover band. We had jammed a little bit before causally, like on Thanksgiving. This was really a great trip. We rocked.
So suits can rock?
Usually, suits were rocking before they were suits, especially Deadheads [laughter].