There was a heaviness walking into The Capitol Theatre just hours following the announcement of the passing of Gregg Allman. A great number of mourners came clad in Allman Brothers Band t-shirts, which added to the pressure of coming out and playing to a crowd of grieving fans.
As Gregg Allman’s rendition of “Will The Circle be Unbroken”, faded out of the sound system, Phil Lesh took the stage. Lesh is no stranger to death nor having to face his own mortality, but that didn’t make his task any easier. Lesh greeted the crowd and acknowledged the death of one from his generation, and dedicated the show to Gregg Allman.
Lesh and Friends opened the show with an emotional “Box of Rain.” This was the perfect song to open with and what the crowd needed to hear as Allman’s death was on the forefront of every mind there.
What makes a Phil Lesh show unique and fun is the diversity of the musicians and Phil’s willigness to play outside of the Grateful Dead songbook. Instrumentally, Lesh is not showing his age. He is still doing Phil bombs. His fingers can still move along the fretboard with ease and grace. His voice is deeper and his smile is sweet to behold.
Ross James’ unique voice and commanding stage presence turned Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” into hard driving blues. Karl Denson made “Here Comes Sunshine” his own as he soulfully hit every note, and the crowd went berserk during Neal Casal’s lead “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” with the help of Denson’s cowbell.
Allman’s influence was present throughout the night as Lesh and friends reflected a southern jazz sound. This was particularly evident with Robert Randolph’s pedal steel and Casal and James’ twangy guitar.
Denson’s sax and flute playing was a strength to the band as it allowed the music to take a free jazz approach during “Dark Star” and “Playing in The Band.” The free form approach to the music led to some moments where in true Grateful Dead fashion lyrics were muddled, but the crowd didn’t mind as they laughed it off.
The highlight of the night was without a doubt “Midnight Rider.” As Ross James played the first notes the roar from the crowd was thundering. The crowd never let up as they were at times just as loud as the band. Neal Casal and Alex Koford gave it their all vocally and couldn’t have done it any better. It was an uplifting way to honor and eulogize Gregg Allman.
How do you respond to such a great loss that you only heard of hours before? How do you pick a setlist? Phil Lesh showed great leadership by responding to the passing of Allman by bringing hope to the audience in choosing songs that spoke to the situation and momentarily lifted the spirits of the mourners.