In honor of Phil Lesh’s 80th birthday on Sunday, we look back to our 1999 interview with Lesh, following his shows with Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Steve Kimock and John Molo.

Photo by Alan Hess

Since their early years, the Grateful dead has always been involved in giving back to the community, first by playing numerous benefits for Bay Area organizations, and later by forming their own charitable organization, The Rex Foundation. In 1997, Phil and Jill Lesh, looking to continue the tradition, as well as harness the vast energy, talents , and dedication of the Deadheads formed The Unbroken Chain Foundation. Unbroken Chain Foundation is an all-volunteer non-profit with minimal overhead expenses. With funds raised through benefit shows, Unbroken Chain Foundation (UBC) has donated grants to other non-profits that support music, the environment, or education.

The first benefit show in December 1997 was a group sing-along between musicians and audience called Philharmonia. Since then Phil Lesh has appeared with many different incarnations of musicians in an ongoing musical adventure called Phil and Friends. Phil’s friends have included Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, Steve Kimock , and Vince Welnick. Each time, at least one of the Phil and Friends shows has been a benefit for UBC.

In December 1998, after a severe illness, Phil was the fortunate recipient of a liver transplant. After a remarkable recovery, Phil once again too the stage April 15-17 at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. The latest Phil and Friends line up included Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell from Phish, Steve Kimock from KVHW, and The Other Ones, and John Molo of The Other Ones. Using Grateful Dead and even a few Phish songs as a launching pad, this group improvised and stretched musical jams into the stratosphere. recently spoke with Phil regarding these shows, UBC, and his recovery.


How was the Unbroken Chain foundation formed?

It started out in ’97. After Jerry’s death the Rex Foundation went into limbo, because there was no more income, and the board of directors couldn’t agree on how to fund any more grants. My wife, Jill and I decided we wanted to start our own foundation, but we didn’t really have an impetus for it until we were driving back from Tahoe one weekend, from a ski weekend, and we were singing in the car. Jill said “Why don’t we have a sing along benefit where the audience is the band essentially” and so we put that together, and it was called Philharmonia, and we had Donna Jean come in, Mickey came by, Bob was there, Michael Tilson Thomas, musical director of the San Francisco Symphony, Graham Nash, Bruce Hornsby, David Grisman, Jackie LaBranch from the Garcia Band, and Edie Brickell came in from NY to be part of it. We sang a bunch of songs that everybody knew , and each one of the guest artists did a song that they were associated with. Graham Nash did “Our House,” and stuff like that. We did “Ripple” as a sing along kind of thing. We did famous participatory stuff like “12 Days of Christmas,” and we did sacred chants in rounds like “Ave Marias” and Mozart in four parts. The whole thing was to get the audience to participate and sing along It was very successful.

The foundation out of that was able to fund three organization in the tenderloin of San Francisco, a women and children’s center, a rec. center, and another organization called Central City Hospitality House, It’s for street kids. There’s a guy there who was hustling his tail on Polk street, when he came in there, and they helped educate him and now he’s one of their flagship stories that they tell everybody. Now he’s an artist and his work is being shown in galleries in San Francisco and at the Museum of Modern Art. Anyhow, that’s their trip. they rehabilitate the street kids.. We also were able to give enough money to the children’s rec. center to buy a van so they could take their kids out to the country, which was a really cool thing, so that’s how the foundation got started. Since then I’ve been doing several shows every year, Phil and Friends shows, sometimes there will be a group of two or three shows, and always one of those shows is a benefit for Unbroken Chain. And we’ve continued to donate money to various causes, I don’t have the list here now.

Are there any other recipients that have stood out?

Well for me, since I’m a musician we have funded a young musicians program in Berkeley , and we funded The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s program called Under Construction where young composers can hear their music played by an orchestra, and learn from that experience, and sort of an open rehearsal where the public comes in and they rehearse the piece and play it through, so the composers can gauge the audiences reaction to what they are doing. That is a really neat thing for composers, which they don’t get a chance to do very often. We’ve been partially funding that for a couple of years now. Also the Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra, the New College of California, Julia Butterfly’s thing, you know she’s living in a tree in the endangered redwood grove in California here.

One thing that we just did recently was there’s an area of land that was going to be logged up in Sonoma County, right next to the Bohemian Grove, which is where the San Francisco Bohemian Club has their campouts and get togethers. It’s a big redwood grove really, and that came up for sale, and we provided the seed money to get a benefit going to purchase that land from the public, and that’s called The Bohemia Waterfall Grove Project. Mickey was involved in that heavily.

You recently did a show for that?

Yes, on April 27. The foundation laid out the seed money and we also played a benefit..

Is Unbroken Chain involved with anything outside the Bay area?

Not as yet, it’s pretty much local, but what we’re planning to do is release the recordings of the April shows we recorded with the Phish guys, and a portion of that we’re going to try agree on a charity that we can donate some money to from the proceeds of the recording.

Will this be a double CD?

No, it’s going to be every note, I will release everything.

Wow! I heard it’s 10 CD’s

Yes, it is.

That’s tremendous. When we were leaving after the third night, we were all saying “They should just release the whole thing.”

I’m pretty sure that’s what the Phish guys want to do, and I’ve been listening to it and warts and all it’s an incredible thing. I personally would not want to face the task of trying to select the best moments from that. There are absolutely transcendental moments in just about everything. In fact, for once, the transcendental moments outweigh the little train wrecks and stumbles, and the minute little mess-ups.

Since you had only worked together for a week , you would have expected those-

Four Days.

Four days was it?

Four Days.

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