July 18-24, 2002
Not Dead Yet
LESH ON LIFE: “I think sometimes it can take a life-changing experience to change your life,” says the bassist (bottom).
Phil Lesh is a content -- and, for lack of a better word, a grateful -- man. Since undergoing a liver transplant three years ago, the longtime Grateful Dead bassist has found himself more committed to music than ever, and he’s looking at life “with a new set of eyes,” as he puts it.
"We're having a blast," the affable Lesh says of his band, Phil Lesh & Friends -- made up of Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, guitarist Jimmy Herring, keyboardist Rob Barraco and drummer John Molo. The quintet, of which the 62-year-old Lesh jokingly says he is "very much the senior member," released its debut album, There and Back Again (Columbia) in May. A 35-city, three-month tour that brings them to the Tweeter Center on Saturday got under way that same month.
"The backbone of the show is a tapestry of Grateful Dead music, but it's my interpretation of it, which isn't quite the same as when the band was together," Lesh says. "This music isn't about rules -- it demands to be interpreted in different ways."
Not that Lesh expected he'd be interpreting Grateful Dead music at all when Jerry Garcia -- whom he met in 1961 and started jamming with regularly four years later -- died in '95, effectively putting an end to the hardy band that had already survived the deaths of three members.
"When I heard about Jerry's death, one of my first, oddest thoughts was, Gee, I won't have to tour anymore,' which was kind of jolting when you consider how much the Dead toured," Lesh recalls. "At that point, I wasn't sure I wanted to play bass anymore, anyway -- live or in a studio." But the long, strange musical trip Lesh began back in the early '60s had hardly ended. About a year after Garcia's death, Lesh took part in a Dead tribute show to "try to put some closure on things." Lesh found that, instead, a new door was slowly opening.
"We had such a great time, and there was such a good vibe that I started thinking, I can't just sit around anymore -- I need to do something." But deciding where to go musically after having spent 30-plus years with the quintessential American improvisatory psychedelic band ended up a process more than a decision. One thing Lesh knew for sure was that the Dead remained continually committed to "always trying to take our music, and our audience, a little further."
Lesh decided to get back into the musical swing of things by celebrating that philosophy on a Grateful Dead tribute tour. The resulting effort, featuring an early incarnation of Phil Lesh & Friends, is captured on 1999's live recording Love Will See You Through.
There and Back Again, recorded with Lesh's current touring band, is his first studio effort since the Dead's 1989 swansong, Built to Last. "I've been with these guys for more than 18 months now, and things keep getting better and better," Lesh says. "In the studio, we knew we had something in that first half-hour. We'd nail a song in a day. It was beyond chemistry; it was synergy."
Onstage, the band plays some songs from the new record -- most of which were co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who opens Saturday's show -- but in longer, less structured ways. After all, Phil Lesh & Friends is primarily a jam band, despite the studio album.
"The way this band works is like we're surfing the current, which is the music, and then we touch down on an island, which becomes a song," he says. "The fun part, the challenging part, is getting there in an interesting way."
The band, Lesh says, feels that "nothing is sacred" musically, not even the Dead's music. And what do his former Dead members think of his new takes on their music? "I haven't asked them, to be honest," Lesh says. "None of us need permission about the music -- it really does have a life of its own."
Physically, Lesh says he feels better than he has in years, due in good part to the liver transplant that saved his life after he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. "I was one of the lucky ones," Lesh says. "I think sometimes it can take a life-changing experience to change your life. In part, that's what happened to me. I can't even begin to tell you how much fun I'm having."
Phil Lesh & Friends perform Sat., July 20, 5 p.m., $26.50-$39.50, with Robert Hunter and the Tri Chromes, at the Tweeter Center, Mickle Blvd. and Riverside Dr., Camden, 215-336-2000, www.electricfactory.com.