Phil Lesh had never appeared at the former Meadowbrook Farms prior to June 22‚ but considering the party he threw in the cozy confines of New Hampshire‚ it's likely he'll return. And no doubt he'd be welcomed with open arms by many of the same who braved torrential downpours and hail to make this show in Gilford -- and who gave a round of applause when the sun broke through just prior to show time.
There can really be no better opener for Lesh & Friends than Levon Helm and his band. The two groups no doubt share an audience and the good-time air of Helm and his Ramblers certainly set the right tone the night after summer solstice. And it wasn't just The Band's "Ophelia" or "Got Me A Woman" from the venerable drummer/singer's Dirt Farmer album: it was guitarist Jimmy Vivino (Fab Faux‚ Conan's band) singing Dylan/Manuel's "Tears of Rage‚" Larry Campbell stepping beyond his comfort zone to rage the famous intro to "Chest Fever" on guitar‚ and the presence of the horn section (including Steve Bernstein) playing note-perfect arrangements the likes of which appeared on the live Rock of Ages album.
Helm imparts a sense of history when he plays and sings on a tune as familiar as "Rag Mama Rag‚" a perspective perhaps even more broad than Phil Lesh‚ even given the latter's charter membership in the Grateful Dead. But the San Francisco band had its own respect for tradition‚ and the bassist remains true to their ethic as he tours with his current lineup of Friends.
Now together a year‚ the Friends -- Campbell‚ keyboardist Steve Molitz (Particle)‚ longtime Lesh comrade drummer John Molo and wunderkind guitarist Jackie Greene -- are performing at a higher level altogether than they did at the two splendid Orpheum shows in Boston I caught last autumn. Greene in particular displays an even greater ease and confidence onstage‚ giving life to Garcia/Hunter staples such as "Sugaree‚" leading the charge on his own material‚ such as the primo rocker "Ball and Chain" from his new album Giving Up the Ghost‚ and‚ perhaps most importantly‚ playing an increasingly larger role in providing direction to the band onstage.
Granted‚ Greene's still learning lead guitar‚ for instance‚ but with his air of abandon‚ he's slowly but surely coaxing Campbell past the pure precision to which he's naturally inclined. Plus‚ Jackie has good musical sense and a fine touch: his work with bottleneck on the latter stage of what became "Dark Star" added an ethereal quality‚ further enhanced via the keyboards of Molitz (a very prominent presence this night). From the ideal start of "Playing in the Band‚" "Mississippi Uptown Toodleloo" led logically into the guest spot of Levon‚ Vivino and the horn section on an uproarious version of The Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show."
With the two sets thus devoted to good hard rockin'‚ high spirits and muscular vigor coursed through Lesh's playing all evening. In contrast to the seamless segues that dominated the Boston show the previous night‚ he and the quintet embarked on more free playing within which they handled sharp transitions with deft grace‚ the most remarkable of which may have been the descent into melancholy that allowed Teresa Williams (of opener Levon Helm's band and the Americana group Olabelle) to deliver "China Doll" with just the proper emotional restraint. It was altogether startling to hear the band pick up their momentum right where they left off as she departed the stage as unobtrusively as she had arrived.
And how better to end the set proper than with Jackie taking over "Truckin'" before a final collective flourish to finish as Phil gestured his emphatic approval? That would be Williams belting out "Dancing in the Streets": "Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the streets…"
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