Phil Lesh and his musical friends once again opened an extended fall run at New York City's sleek Nokia Theatre with a Halloween show. A prankster at heart‚ Phil likes to mix it up and surprise his audience with obscure covers and hidden Dead gems‚ as well as with new arrangements of the classics. This is a guy who clearly loves Halloween.
The core lineup of Phil's band is the same as last year: Jackie Greene on guitar and the majority of lead vocals‚ Larry Campbell on guitar‚ violin‚ mandolin and any other stringed instrument that is put in front of him‚ Steve Molitz on keyboards and some vocals‚ and the monster John Molo on drums. The major addition is Barry Sless on pedal steel and‚ occasionally‚ guitar. I couldn't be happier about Barry joining‚ as his pedal steel playing is gorgeous and adds another dimension to the band's sound.
Teresa Williams‚ Larry's wife and a very talented singer in her own right‚ also contributed vocals on about half of the night's songs.
Halloween saw the band playing only a few Dead standards. Phil chose to dig deeper into the catalogue and also offered a number of wacky covers. The first set opened with a jam that led into "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)" that segued into another jam and then into "Cream Puff War." Both are old songs and fan favorites that Phil has brought back in recent years. The band's energy was extremely high right off the bat.
After the bluesy Jackie song "Cold Black Devil‚" the guys slowed it down with a beautiful "It Must Have Been the Roses" that featured Larry on violin. This was one of the highlights of the show for me‚ though the crowd's incessant chatter was a problem here and throughout the night.
Jackie led the band through more blues‚ "Next Time You See Me‚" that eventually segued into a high-energy "Mason's Children." After this came a great jam that featured some three-way guitar dueling between Jackie‚ Larry and Barry. When I heard the first notes of "Casey Jones‚" I knew set break was coming soon and it was time to get a drink.
Just like last year‚ the second set opened with Phil off-stage reading some of Edgar Allen Poe's poetry as the band played a dark‚ meandering jam (time for another drink). This didn't do too much for me as you couldn't really hear what Phil was saying and the jam didn't go anywhere particularly interesting.
Eventually Phil came back out and led the band into "Boris the Spider" -- again‚ just like last year. I didn't find this tune particularly engaging either‚ so I was relieved when‚ out of nowhere‚ the band dove into the Edgar Winter classic "Frankenstein." As far as Halloween-themed tunes go‚ this is about as good as it gets. Molitz in particular shined here with the use of some Particle-esque synth playing.
The rest of the set was dominated by "Cryptical Envelopment/The Other One" going in and out of a number of jams before eventually leading into "St. Stephen." As tight as the band's jamming was and as great as "Cryptical" is‚ the crowd was more than ready to hear a classic like "St. Stephen‚" and it seemed like it was the first song of the set to fully engage the audience.
The Rolling Stones classic "Gimme Shelter" was next -- another crowd favorite‚ another chance for Larry‚ Barry and Jackie to play guitar hero. Teresa also sounded particularly good on this song -- for the first time all night she was really high in the mix and really amped up the crowd and the band's energy.
After Phil's donor speech and a band introduction‚ the encore was Warren Zevon's classic "Werewolves of London‚" which everyone expected and was hoping for.
Much like New Year's Eve‚ Halloween is a tricky night for concerts. It is a big party-night and everyone has their own expectations about what a band should do to celebrate. While the night's set list reads much like last Halloween's‚ it was a solid show and a really good time. More than anything it got me excited for the next few weeks of Phil shows.