Gig review: Phil Lesh makes Portland a family affair

Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh plays alongside his son, Grahame Lesh, on guitar at Thompson’s Point in Portland. Photo courtesy of Robert Ker

It’s a rare and special occasion when a member of the Grateful Dead visits Portland.

After years of relative silence, guitarist Bob Weir performed two shows at the State Theater in 2019, and on Sunday bassist Phil Lesh took to the open-air stage at Thompson’s Point for a gem of a concert that included rarities, favorites, covers and inspired interpretations of material from the extensive Grateful Dead catalog.

This year, Lesh opted out of performing with his former and likely future bandmates on the touring juggernaut Dead & Company (which visited Foxborough, Massachusetts, on July 2), instead playing a series of shows with a rotating mix of musicians. The names of the two bands reveal differences that Lesh might like: Dead & Company involves the massive, professional enterprise of keeping the Grateful Dead brand vital, while Phil Lesh and Friends suggests an intimate jam session between loved ones.

The family atmosphere at Thompson’s Point suited this approach, as did the fact that Lesh was accompanied by his son, the talented guitarist Grahame Lesh.

Throughout the gig, young Lesh and fellow guitarist Stu Allen played their instruments in Jerry Garcia-like tones and wrapped their playing around each other, invoking the warm, loose feeling of euphoria and community that is so unique to Dead-related shows. that it may as well be a registered trademark. Aided by keyboardist Jason Crosby, vocalist Amy Helm and drummer Cody Dickinson, they delivered a chestnut opening set including “Shakedown Street”, “Bird Song”, “They Love Each Other” and “Touch of Grey”.

The improvisation was tight and the tempos were generally relaxed, which made it all the more surprising when they covered Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” and kicked off Dylan’s acoustic classic.

The second set was even softer and more contemplative than the first, but it also shone brightly. “Rosemary,” a song the Grateful Dead included on their 1969 album “Aoxomoxoa” but was only performed live once, opened the set with a brief appetizer that also signaled that something was wrong. nifty was brewing – a clue that came to fruition when this seed bloomed into a version inspired by the beloved Grateful Dead opus “Terrapin”.

The musicians returned to more obscure fare with a cover of Dead lyricist Robert Hunter’s “Jack O’Roses” (a Terrapin Station Suite song that was never played by the Dead), then returned to fare populists with “Scarlet Begonias”. a song that has long been a great showcase for Lesh’s creativity.

Rather than give way to “Fire on the Mountain,” the frequent cohort of “Scarlet Begonias,” the band disbanded into an epically lengthy version of “Dark Star.” True to the song’s reputation, the band used its structure to launch into what was by far the most abstract and experimental improvisation of the evening. The jam unfolded in a manner similar to free jazz, with Lesh and the two guitarists parting ways with impressionistic splashes before finally bringing the strings together and returning to the song proper.

They closed the show on firmer ground, including crescendos of “Morning Dew,” the uptempo “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” and “And We Bid You Goodnight,” a song that not only helped put the show in bed, but also the trick.

Lesh is 82, and his bass guitar phrasing and overall stage presence were both remarkably lively; it’s easy to imagine that he still has many years on the road ahead of him. By choosing to tour with his son rather than Dead and Company, it’s also reasonable to assume he’s putting some kind of spiritual succession plan in place, so that his music and his legacy can live on for decades, if not years. generations to come. The number of children and young people enjoying the concert suggests that this will be the case.

Robert Ker is a freelance writer in Portland. He can be reached at [email protected].

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