A long time ago in a fantastical place called a record store, my manager was confused as to why I’d go see the Grateful Dead again and again.
“Don’t you get tired of hearing them play “Truckin’?”
I patiently explained that the point was that I didn’t hear that song all the time.
The anticipation each night was for something unique – a song, a solo, an attempt towards new musical discoveries even if it wasn’t always successful — that could only be experienced at each show.
That thought passed through my mind as I waited with a sold out crowd at Radio City Music Hall on the opening date of the Bobby & Phil Duo Tour. Pre-show discussions of what to expect eventually led to resigned conclusions that what happens is what will happen.
That gave way from an emotional reunion between longtime Grateful Dead and post-Dead bandmates to a reimagining of that band’s catalog, which found Bob Weir and Phil Lesh challenging themselves and their audience for two-and-a-half hours, and succeeding immensely in that endeavor.
With the curtain up a percussion setup gets pushed out. After murmurs that it would be Joe Russo, the repeated question soon became, “Who’s that guy?” It was Wally Ingram, veteran musician who has performed with Weir at the D’Angelico guitar booth at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) as well as with Timbuk 3, David Lindley, Jimmy Vivino (of the Basic Cable Band on “Conan”) among others. Used intermittently during the first set and the entire second set, he provided just enough color to the songs with his array of cymbals and rhythmic instruments.
Similar to what other Dead-related shows have become, the Radio City gig frequently morphed into a sing-along, as if the audience’s adoration of the material needed to be vocalized. That participatory aspect displayed itself during the tour opener, “Uncle John’s Band.”
Weir on acoustic guitar and Lesh on his electric Alembic eased into the song with the precision of a Swiss watch. The slightly higher vocal key used that night suited both for the harmonies on the chorus. When it came time for the acappella portion at the end, they made the rare move of singing along to the crowd’s rhythmic clapping rather than ignoring it.
Lesh sounded good while taking the lead vocal on “Operator,” while Weir had a Bobby Moment when he skipped the line “Just like New York City” in “Ramble On Rose” – anticipation, deflation, penance and forgiveness. To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, the audience paid for the ticket, they knew what the ride could bring and they took it anyway.
What was more noticeable during that number as well as throughout the night was Weir’s guitar playing. Normally, overshadowed in band situations by his lead players as well as his penchant for doling out textural chords rather than acting in the normal role of a rhythm guitar player churning out a melodic riff pattern for the duration of a tune, his playing on Friday night was revelatory and showed loads of creativity. In accordance with his style, each strum of the plectrum presented one surprise after another, as if instinct guided both of his hands into making unique and distinct personalities of notes.
That became especially interesting during the instrumental breaks as Lesh also played solos. The instruments occasionally teetered towards chaos but generally they danced together in a copacetic union.
The relaxed attitude of Weir and Lesh will, hopefully, continue during the tour (and at possible dates in the future). Tonight, it meant that Weir had a few things to say during the first set:
—“Every one of these tunes means a little something different to everyone here including us,” before “Ramble On Rose.”
—“This song has been real good for us and you, too,” before “Friend of the Devil.”
—He relayed the story on living outside of San Francisco on a ranch and hearing the sounds of Pigpen and Janis Joplin having sex before the Duo played “Birdsong,” which segued into “He’s Gone.”
The first set ended with a “Lost Sailor”>”Saint of Circumstance” that sustained the power of a full band production. Consider that a combination of musical force and the will of the people.
Before the curtain went up for second set Weir and Lesh were heard loosening up or possibly figuring something out.
A nice groovin’ “Loose Lucy” opened with the crowd overpowering the PA system on the “Rooound and rooooound.” Lesh took over on lead vocals for “Peggy-O.” “Me and My Uncle” made a rare second set appearance.
Then, the selections and approaches mimic more of a regular second set with expansive arrangements transitioning from one number to the next. “Mountains of the Moon” segued into a reprise of “Birdsong.”
Weir switched to electric guitar on “Let It Grow,” which stretched out and gained momentum even in this stripped-down version. That led into a determined marching pace to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” And despite not having the Bo Diddley drumbeat behind them, the Duo finished with a rousing “Not Fade Away.”
Lesh’s Donor Rap included a mention of Headcount volunteers in the venue to register voters. Still rattled by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Lesh punctuated his speech with “Vote the m************ out!”
Afterwards, he sang a version of “Box of Rain” that remained timely, sentimental and hopeful.
As the first of six history-making Bobby & Phil Duo shows it wasn’t perfect nor should that have been expected. When they are searching for the sound, there are times it can get messy, and then there are other moments when things coalesce and are just exactly perfect, in no particular way but their own.