The New Year was already a few seconds old when Phil Lesh began his onstage countdown to 2018.
But the audience – which had already cheered its arrival – and couples – who had already kissed – were game and went through the exercise again before Lesh and his Friends slammed into “Shakedown Street” to begin their third set inside Honolulu’s Hawaii Theatre.
The last place on Earth to celebrate the arrival of the New Year was treated to a three-hour performance staggered in sets of 50, 75 and 60 minutes, respectively, that found the group billed as Phil Lesh & Friends, which featured the Terrapin Family Band with Lettuce’s Eric Krasno as special guest, playing not only Grateful Dead material, but covering Funkadelic, Bob Dylan, the Band, the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones.
It was a night of segues and sandwiches – with “Casey Jones” tied into “Slipknot!” for example – from a muscular and versatile band featuring three hot-shot guitarists in Grahame Lesh, Ross James and Krasno and five vocalists in both Leshes, James, Krasno and drummer Alex Koford. Grahame Lesh handled the bulk of the duties at the mic, while keyboardist Jason Crosby, who had a live microphone at the ready, didn’t sing a note.
The elder Lesh was positively beaming all night as he directed traffic; waved to his young grandson, Levon, who occasionally toddled onstage; stared with fatherly pride at Grahame; and even mimicked/mocked Bob Weir with some falsetto screams at the end of the show-closing “Sugar Magnolia.” His smile seemed glued to his face.
There was no encore. Lesh simply said “Mahalo,” elongating each syllable, and the musicians walked offstage to receive hugs and kisses from family and friends waiting in the wings.
That final set had no breaks in the music as the band slipped “Get off Your Ass and Jam,” with Koford proving himself a competent rapper and the Friends capable of solid funk(adelic), into a “Shakedown.” A similarly thumping “Viola Lee Blues” was cut into thirds, dissected by high-energy takes of “Cumberland Blues” and “Bertha,” respectively, making the just-arrived 2018 the year of the jam.
The sextet had galloped out of the gate one minute before the 9 p.m. start time with “Jack Straw.” And when James and Krasno followed up with the opening notes of “Tumbling Dice,” which was appropriately raggedy, fans, who were fired up from Note One to the final cymbal crash, knew anything might happen on the final night of 2017.
And it did.
Vaguely familiar riffs emanated from the stage as the musicians slid into the “Intro” from Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal album. And within minutes, everybody was singing VU’s “Sweet Jane” at the top of their lungs and dancing like tomorrow – which was just three hours away – might never come.
Then it was James’ turn, leading the group through a hyperkinetic rendition of the acid-drenched proto-punk of Jerry Garcia’s early-era “Cream Puff War,” before Krasno took over for a slow, brooding “Sugaree” that led to a faithful, James-sung rendition of the Band’s “The Shape I’m In” to end the opening stanza.
James, reading from a lyric sheet, also provided the highlight of the middle third, rendering Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as galloping rocker that sounded like “The Jean Genie” might have sounded if it appeared on Highway 61. For 10 blissful minutes, the three guitarists and Crosby traded searing solos and never got in one another’s way – a staggering feat as this song was delivered without any caution.
The set, which opened with a short “Space” followed by a jazzy, Grahame Lesh-led “Help on the Way,” featured two of the Dead’s “hits” in the form of “Casey Jones” and “Truckin’” – making cocaine a theme of the evening. And Phil, his voice growing dimmer at 77, delivered a sing-along rendition of his own “Box of Rain” in a joyous, if not altogether tuneful, celebration of song and shared musical history.
Only “Wharf Rat,” slowed to a dirge with Koford – the band’s best singer – on lead vocals, lagged. But this was quickly remedied and forgiven when the set – and the year that was 2017 – ended with “New Speedway Boogie.”
And when the entire house sang, “One way or another/this darkness got to give” in a cappella unison, it seemed a fitting end to a challenging 365-day stretch.
Seeing Lesh in Hawaii on New Year’s Eve would’ve been a treat even if the show had been mediocre. That it was far and away the best Grateful Dead-related musical experience I’ve had since well before Fare Thee Well made it that much more special.