Great Bass, Lesh Philling

Right up until Sunday, the day of the show, I wasn’t sure if I’d go to see Phil Lesh & Friends at SPAC. I’d been sick for two weeks, the first week full-blown, with all symptoms known to (wo)man, and a second full week with the phlegmish hacking cough. Symptoms had died down by Saturday, but I didn’t want to travel unless I was going to have a great time – I could have a good time at home.
When I woke up I felt good, and balancing continued R&R vs. dancing until midnight, I decided to let the hotel decide. If I could easily get a reasonable room the morning of the show, I was good to go. Let’s have fun. First call, at the Super-8 over by the big Wal-Mart – across from the Home Depot and Target, right off the exit, before you get to the Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and EMS – the Super-8 had a room for the in-season typical $125. Therefore, it’s a deal, we’re on the road, pack it up. Figured on a 3-hour drive in holiday weekend mid-day traffic. It was 11 AM, and the show started at 5.
I arrived at about 4:15, after stopping at the hotel to change. Surprisingly, I got a great parking spot in the VIP area just off the back entrance by the reflecting pool. One reason might be that as I drove down Avenue of the Pines and hit the traffic directors, there was a sign that said, “Main parking lot [arrow right]; VIP parking [arrow left].” Everyone was going to the main lot, but I just turned left, no one seemed to care, and drove into a shaded parking spot. Got out of the car, stretched, looked around. No one was walking after me or hollering, and people of the tribe were grilling and chilling so I decided: Parked.
The reason to see concerts at SPAC is that if you get there early you have a very nice State Park scene for hanging out.

I’ve been coming to concerts here since 1983, when those trees were a lot shorter. There’s a lot more crowd control now. Back in the day they’d put 34,000 people here, with multiple delay towers for sound, and it was crazy spinning sweating hippies even at the way-back of the lawn. Now they top out more like 25,000, and there’s never any delay towers beyond the house system hung on the back of the balcony. And instead of a couple dozen ushers and a virtual autonomous zone, there are hundreds of ushers and you can hardly go visit a friend across the aisle without answering for it. But it’s still SPAC, a New York State Park, manicured for our dionysian pleasure, with its marble stall dividers, lush green lawn, old pine trees, brick outbuildings, waterfall, bridge, and ravine. It just doesn’t get much better than this for rock ‘n roll, so stop complaining already. We’re lucky they let fools like us in the place with the terror alert at Code Yellow (soon rising again as we approach November).

June 30, 2006 – The United States remains at an elevated risk, Code Yellow, for terrorist attack. The Department of Homeland Security continues to analyze intelligence and closely monitor events as they unfold overseas. At this time, there is no credible intelligence to suggest a specific or imminent threat to the homeland.

Back in the real world, sans propaganda, people were enjoying themselves at a cultural event. First up was the Benevento-Russo Duo, who I’d never heard, or heard of. They seem pretty young, so I think this is a big gig for them:

Keyboard player and drummer. I would call the music I heard intense, pattern-oriented electronica. Driving, tight, cranked. Very well-played. Enjoyable, and a pretty danceable 45 minute set. Worth exploring.
Next up were Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon, former Phishmates. What I didn’t realize is that they’re playing with the Duo. They set up as a foursome and played a little over an hour:

Those guys totally rocked out. After the second tune, which contained more than one killer jam and a spectacular close, the guy next to me (who I didn’t know) looked over and said, “Dude! That was totally like the old days!!” Indeed it was. When those guys hit the groove they nearly got the gold ring. Surprisingly good, and not just a nostalgia act. The Duo adds a modern element that takes Trey and Mike into the 21st century. Recommended.
Here’s a wider shot to get a sense of the indoor scene:

Toward the middle of the set a guy named Blake showed up in the aisle in front of me. A little while later he turned and asked, “Did Mike play the acoustic [guitar] yet?” No, not that I remember. A few minutes later they jumped into “Who Are You?” by The Who, a classic-rock surprise prize, and along the way Mike did then pick up the acoustic for that little ditty in the middle of the song and the guy Blake turned around and high-fived me. “Psychic!,” he said. Of course, he had been on the road and this was his third of four shows, so he might have had some sub-conscious low-frequency pattern-recognition going on there.
Above, in the left of the frame, you see Leigha, who’s currently working as a bartender in New Paltz, NY. She was with a couple who drove up for the day. We had talked a bit during the set, I don’t remember how it started, I think maybe I asked her something, since one of the things I’m doing these days is learning how to talk to random people. I’m more of a closer, not much of an opener, so I’m practicing. At the break her friends went to get water, so she and Blake and I talked for a while.
Blake was having a good time, as they say, and Leigha and I were pretty much drinking water and hanging out. We talked some facts like wherefrom, schools, tour plans. Blake had been to Bonnaroo last month, and Leigha had been for the past three years but not this year. I asked them what they liked about it. He said, “Good bands.” Leigha? “I think the community, the feeling you get when you’re there.” Like how? “Well, like when you’re walking by a campground and some people are cooking eggs and you say, ‘Oh, that smells good!’ and they say, ‘We have extra, do you want some?’ Stuff like that happened all the time.” [Well, this is a lot better than talking about college.]
So I asked, “What do you think creates that sense of community? The world needs more of that, what can we do to create that, to bring that out in people?” She thought for a minute and said, “I think it has to do with being open, and being nice to people, and helping people along the way.” I said, “So, if we can be open and vulnerable in more situations, just engage without preconceptions, then maybe it rubs off on other people or something?” She replied, “Well, at the least it’s a couple more open and engaged people in the world, and that can’t be all bad.” At this point Blake suddenly blurted, “Man, you guys are deep! I am in no shape to talk about stuff like this.” [No wonder guys get a bad rep.]
Leigha smiled. I winked at her, and thought, “Is this the state of competition for dates these days? Blake, dude, have something to talk about!” We chit-chatted to include him. Turns out Leigha has a master’s in literature and the environment, a program she heard about when she was teaching English in China. I asked her if I could take her picture. She wasn’t comfortable with that. She asked me where I lived, and why I liked it there. She asked Blake what he did for work. Turns out he’s a mortgage broker in the sub-prime sector – “We help people save their homes, even if they have bad credit; We loan them the money ourselves for 7% a year for two years, then it converts into a regular loan; I mean, yeah, at that point it’s 13%, so I guess that’s why they call us the predatory mortgage market, but I can sleep at night, at least these people have their houses, they wouldn’t otherwise.”
Okay. Time to go get some water. Handshakes all around. Good eye contact.
Placed a bet with myself: When I return either Leigha is with her friends and Blake is gone, or Blake is there and she’s gone. Zero probability of anything else happening. I walked up through the lawn, and it had filled in quite a bit:

Bought four waters, two liters to drink and two 16 oz to give away. Went to the men’s room. Wandered around the vending and food options. Considered the beer tent and skipped it. Took some crowd pictures, but that seemed to generate slightly bad vibes. Makes sense. Headed back inside. Blake was there alone, natch. I won the bet. Gave him a water. “Wow, thanks!” “Just building community. Leigha split?” “She said she’ll be back.”
When Phil came out, I was surprised to see Joan Osbourne with them. She had played with The Dead, but never with Phil & Friends. I didn’t know she was on the tour. When Chris and I saw this band in December, I remember thinking it was early in the tour, and they would get a lot better. Now it’s three tours later, and it’s the lineup we saw in Boston, plus Joan on vocals, and Greg Osby on sax. They were a lot more together, and Joan adds an important vocal component for this band.

The show had something of a slow entrainment for me. Good Times, okay soundcheck opener. Sittin’ on Top of the World did get a nice groove going with some jazzy fiddle and horn jams. I usually dig Direwolf, but this was kind of poppy. It didn’t have any kind of deep or thick or fur-lined groove happening. Then Joan sang Peaceful Valley, a Ryan Adams tune. Slow and sweet, southern bluegrass country. Maybe too slow that early in the set.
Then I’m not sure what happened, maybe a bus came by and I got on, that’s when it all began. Suddenly we were in Fennario, and everyone—band, audients, Audience—was locked in. Bang, in a heartbeat. Best Peggy-O ever, no doubt about it. So beautiful. Then a slow solid stomping Althea. Can’t talk to you without talking to me, We’re guilty of the same old thing. Thinking a lot about less and less, And forgetting the love we bring.Very deliberate and smokey. Magic is possible when you take the time to rehearse. Some of the sax solos and improvisation sounded more like a baroque ensemble than a rock band.
I heard a lot of interesting tempo changes, perhaps micro-tempo changes, in Peggy-O and Althea. Subtle shifts in the pacing, slight changes in the exact placement of the one, stretching and compressing the elasticity of time. Very skilled and polished, I thought. But there’s a guy on the Internet who seems to think they didn’t have it together:

Everything was well performed, but the band had a tough time getting on the same page during Peggy-O, which was to bad condisering how well I heard them play it in February. Althea was pretty smoking to close the set and featured some great playing from all, even Osby. This was my first time seeing and hearing this band with Osby and I really have to say that he did not add to much. He sounded like he was struggling at times and like he is trying to figured what key the songs are in for the entire performance of the tune. I really wasn’t impressed with him at all. But in his defense he is still getting to know the material and he hasn’t spent much time with the band, and I’m sure it will get better as it goes along.

Huh? Greg Osby is a master player. What he was playing during those two songs probably went over the heads of most of the audience. It’s more likely our critic was listening to his expectations and not open to the brand-new, fresh, never-before-heard music in the room. Greg Osby trying to figure out the key? Get a grip.
Thus ended the hour-long first set. Seemed super-short, since I only connected deeply with the last two songs. I stayed in place for the break. I wore my new favorite t-shirt and stood up and showed it off whenever I could.

When I first saw someone wearing this shirt at Dairy Day I laughed out loud. The day before I’d seen a “got democracy?” t-shirt on a friend and this was even better. More direct. Cutting. But then I realized the back of the shirt shows the seven cooperative principles and it’s a co-op movement t-shirt! Happy happy joy joy!

A 60-something usher glanced at the shirt and as he checked my ticket said quietly, to himself, “Ok, got principles, that’s a good one.” Smiled and pointed down the aisle and handed me my ticket. Mostly the hippies laugh and the crew-cuts look away. Meme injection project continues apace.
One thing I don’t like about the new and improved well-managed SPAC are video ads played during intermission. Granted, they’re silent, so it’s not too intrusive, but you can’t really escape the video screens. The variety was amazing. Here’s a sampling, so you can avoid these merchants that leech off the good vibes of counter-culture rock ‘n roll: Jeep, Hinekin, GE, State Farm, Marriott (“be treated like a star”), fye, Fetzer wine, Appleby’s, Verizon,, Rockstar Energy Drink, Best Buy, Dunkin’ Doughnuts (“iced coffee in nine flavors”). Etc. You’ll notice they get no link love from Notio.
Okay, second set opened with New Speedway Boogie. It’s unlikely I will ever forget Joan’s inflection delivering One step done and another begun, in I wonder how many miles? Spent a little time on the mountain, Spent a little time on the hill, Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.
Three rows in front of me there’s a woman in her late-20s or early-30s. She’s wearing an erotic asian art t-shirt. Not exactly like the art linked (I didn’t yet find a copy online) but similar. A guy could never wear this shirt. And, doesn’t she get hit on constantly wearing that? Maybe it’s a way to separate the men from the boys, so to speak. It’s certainly a conversation starter, and possibly an immediate ender too, all rolled into one. Maybe it intimidates people so they don’t approach her?
Nice lengthy and considered jam going into He’s Gone. Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.
Into Uncle John’s Band. It’s a Buck Dancer’s Choice, my friend, better take my advice. You know all the rules by now, and the fire from the ice.
They’re teasing Truckin’ during every jam between songs, so I wonder if it will be the set-closer payoff. The show is error-free at the level of the song. They’re remembering the lyrics or using the monitors—and not a decade too soon. There may be a musical faux pax here and there, but I don’t hear anything obvious and it’s probably at a level that most won’t notice. I don’t think anyone missed a lyric all night, nearly unheard-of in the land of the Dead.
Joan leaves the stage, and Phil and Greg lead a free jam which issues a transfer to Unbroken Chain. I love this song, and they seem to play it a lot when I’m in attendance, and I like that. November and more as I wait for the score, They’re telling me forgiveness is the key to every door. A slow winter day, a night like forever, Sink like a stone, float like a feather.
We forgive Phil for singing because he wrote the song and it’s so good. His voice has been shot for years, and he’s kind enough to hire other singers for most of the tours, but there are a few songs he still sings. Tonight was very strong, with some sort of Eleven-ish jam in the middle. Totally sick, as my college buddy Bug would say. Then back into Chain. Amazing.
Long pause. Band resets. Joan returns. We wait quietly. Count off, click click click pause. Morning Dew. Please god let Joan sing it. Yes. Thank you. Beautiful. Calm. Strong. Respect.
Short pause. Trey walks out and plugs in. Quiet free jam to start. Trey in the lead. The band is trancing, hypnotic, looking nowhere, listening everywhere. Trey might already be drooling. Thought it was going to be Tomorrow Never Knows because of Joan’s throaty vocalizations during the intro. She sounded like a sax, then Greg came in to carry it on. Suddenly:
Into The Wheel. You can’t go back, and you can’t stand still. If the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will. Unlike any previous Wheel ever. Trey and Phil are in the lead; the band is supporting Trey. Harmonic, soaring, waves crashing, round and round, then back to the song. Exit jam sounds like TNK again. Smokin’.
Into Not Fade Away. Rock out closer. During the jams Trey is playing hard and Joan is standing in front of him dancing with him, smiling. I’m laughing; they’re having a great time. She’s got her back to most of the audience, he’s an audience of one. She spins around to sing her verse and then turns back to him. Joan and Trey trade places, Joan dances with Greg while Trey jams across Phil with Larry. Rock ‘n roll, baby. At the peak Joan is vocalizing at the top of her game, totally putting out for that song. While the band brings it home to land she steps back and looks left, looks right, and smiles with satisfaction. Her boys done good.
Rap for organ donors, then Casey Jones. House lights. I sit for a while and listen to the crowd. Happiness. I stand near the aisle for a while and show off the t-shirt. One nice thing about staying inside for a bit is the interior view glowing gently like a spaceship.

Leigha never came back. Next time I’ll invite her to come with for water, not leave her with the sub-prime mortgage broker.
Rather than sit in traffic I walk around the park for a while. Men’s room. Wash up in the cold water. Some trash pickup. Drink some more water. Take in the post-show view. Walk on the grass under the tress to the car. Drive to the hotel. Eat some peanuts. Look at the photos. Twelve hours earlier I was packing, now it’s over.

Thanks to Rob Clarke, who recorded, mastered, and uploaded the show before I even got home to download it. You can also buy an official soundboard recording.