I was waffling right up until Sunday on whether or not to see this show, but
in the end, the opportunity to see these five musical giants playing on the
boardwalk of a small town I spent so much of my youth in was too much too
resist. While so many other performers had given up on this faded playground
long ago, I was impressed that Phil Lesh was giving Asbury Park a chance and
playing in one of the most historic venues on the East Coast. I had expected
my local brethren to give a proper welcome to Phil and the thousands of
pilgrims following him from town to town on this tour. So you can imagine my
dismay at having to wait on line for an hour and a half merely to walk 100
yards or so to the entrance of Convention Hall. With ten doors available on
each side of the arcade leading to the hall, the promoters opened only one
door on the north end, letting ten people at a time in, to be frisked like
they were at US Customs.

This was inexcusable, and I wound up missing the "Eyes of the World" opener
despite getting on line at 7:00. After being patted down, I was finally
"allowed" into the hall around 8:30, and the familiar slide of Warren Haynes’
guitar helped ease my angered mind. I came in at the end of a post-Eyes jam
that went into a vocally transcendent "The Wheel". Phil’s arrangement wisely
emphasized harmony over symphony, and it was a treat to hear Warren, Phil and
Rob Barraco singing this Garcia classic with such gusto. The jam that
followed was a spacey exploration, heavy on the wah-wah, that was interesting
if a little too meandering at times. They followed this up with a cover of
Traffic’s "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys". This song embodied the overall
effect of the entire first set a mix of stratospheric highs tempered by the
occasional low. Haynes’ voice was in top form and his slide gave the song a
more bluesy feel than the ’71 original. Jimmy Herring, as well, played
phenomenally, with a spidery solo in the middle of the tune that captivated
the crowd.

However, it seemed as though every time they came out of the main chorus,
they would descend too slowly into a wandering exploration that took just a
little too long to get going. Toward the end, they seemed to click and
gradually sped up into a sort of "Hoe-down Jam" that sounded as though they
would bust out "Cumberland Blues". Nope. It was "Cold Rain & Snow" instead,
and no dead spots here. Just a terrific rendering of this tune from start to
finish that, again, allowed Warren’s, Phil’s, and Rob’s harmonies to shine.
Jimmy and Warren both took magnificent solos on this one. After this
explosive burst of energy, Warren took us on a little introspective side trip
with "Tastes Like Wine". The song had more of a heavy metal feel than some of
the Deadheads in the audience may have been ready to handle. It had its
delicate moments too, though, and exemplified Haynes’ extraordinary
songwriting ability. The set ended with a "Scarlet Begonias" that began
hesitantly, but eventually developed into a walloping throwback to the glory
days of the Dead with a contemporary spin.

Set two opened with a pleasant surprise, the Brent Mydland composition "Tons
of Steel". Perhaps no other member of the Dead was as controversial or
divided fans more, and many cover acts shy away from his compositions. Lesh,
however, obviously recognizes Mydland’s ability to write a heartfelt ballad
and wanted to pay tribute to his departed band mate. Haynes commanded this
beautiful rendering, and the similarities between his and Mydland’s voice
were unmistakable. The opener descended into a massive jam that had Phil
dropping, if not his infamous bombs, at least a few rhythmic grenades. Things
began to slow down and it appeared as though they were going into "Space"
when, on a dime, they switched tempo and went into a monster "Casey Jones".
The crowd erupted in delight and the band didn’t disappoint. Rather than
aping Garcia’s stripped down Workingman’s solos, Herring and Haynes each
offered his own unique and expressive takes on this Dead classic. The song
climaxed toward the end, as the band repeated the closing "Drivin’ that
train" chorus over a dozen times, raising the tempo each time until finally
they were screaming "and you know that notion" with the same speed and
ferocity that Phish used to sing their song "Sparkle" with. This left the
crowd virtually breathless.

Phil gave the audience some time to catch its breath while he sang Robbie
Robertson’s "Broken Arrow". Then the "industrial strength" set, as Phil put
it, began. "Viola Lee Blues" came lumbering out of the band’s amplifiers like
Paul Bunyan from the forest, ready to cut down anything in its path.
Barraco’s peerless organ lent this secular lion a spiritual air. As the band
wandered its way through the aural forest, their journey led them to Miss
Eleanor Rigby, silent, save for her familiar melody. The jam continued to
wander before finding a clearing through which they stepped out onto, yes,
"Shakedown Street". The already fired up crowd simply lost it on this one, as
the familiar opening notes whipped them into a dancing frenzy. The lyrics hit
all too close to home on the boardwalk of this former resort. "Don’t tell me
this town ain’t got no heart," implored Phil and his Friends, "ya just gotta
poke around!" Drummer John Molo and Barraco then led the band into a wild
samba jam that went on for five minutes before sneaking back into the closing
"Shakedown" chorus.

Defying the urge to rest, the band continued to jam out until they came upon
"Bertha", resplendent in green and ensuring that the crowd "really had to
move". The band then moved into the jam that could most accurately be called
"Space", a psychedelic exploration that bounced spiritedly off Convention
Hall’s high, arched ceilings and chandeliers. They brought this back into
another verse of "Viola Lee Blues", then back into another five minutes of
"Space", before ripping out Wilson Pickett’s "In the Midnight Hour." Never
mind that it was only 11:15. Like a Stella Doro breakfast treat, this song
sounds great anytime, and rarely has it sounded so tight. The band was
clearly on for this one, adhering to a crisp rendering of the chorus while
allowing Barraco, Herring and Haynes each to take a wild solo of their own.
With the finality of the lyrics, on would have assumed this was what they
were going to close the set with. But no! The band yearned for and delivered
yet ONE MORE VERSE of "Viola Lee Blues"! Close to midnight, Phil and Friends
finally brought the set to a thunderous end, leaving the crowd sweaty and
delirious with delight.

Phil came out after a few minutes and thanked the crowd, at first encouraging
them to support local restoration efforts on the Asbury Park boardwalk, then
reminding them to consider blood and organ donation. He then introduced his
Friends one by one, as they strapped their instruments on for the encore. The
band played a wonderful new Robert Hunter composition called "Midnight
Train", which transitioned nicely into a delicate and heartfelt "I Know You
Rider". Indeed, the local Deadheads would miss Phil & Friends when they’re
gone, but they were hopeful that this would not be his last visit to these
shores. Hopefully, the organizers learned a few lessons and will be a little
more professional and efficient the next time around.