Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Donna Jean Godchaux McKay - vocals; Warren Haynes - guitar, vocals; Steve Kimock - guitar; Merl Saunders - keyboards, vocals; John Molo - drums
Out of the dozens of The Grateful Dead spin-off bands, none has been more consistently successful at capturing the exploratory essence of the original experience than Phil Lesh & Friends. Lesh and his ever-evolving cast of characters have maintained a level of excellence that few other improvisational jambands can lay claim to and all have proven adept at the long, exploratory jams that were a trademark of the Dead. An air of unpredictability was always at the core of the Grateful Dead experience and this is something Lesh thoroughly understands and embraces in every performance.
An ongoing project for well over a decade now, the consistent factors are bassist Phil Lesh and drummer John Molo, arguably one of the most adventurous and melodically sophisticated rock rhythm sections ever. Acclaimed for breathing new life into the Grateful Dead's vast repertoire, including long abandoned material deemed too difficult to perform, Lesh specifically recruits friends who are comfortable with these challenges and who enjoy playing without boundaries. In addition to the Dead material, they explore an unlimited range of covers, spanning nearly every musical genre over the past century. Blues, rock, country, jazz, avant garde, are all fuel for Phil Lesh & Friends and this irreverence for any one tradition, while simultaneously appreciating all of them, is one of the appealing facets that continue to draw legions of fans from far and wide.
The performance presented here is a particularly interesting one, as not only does it capture the Phil & Friends experience early on it's development, but also features a spectacular one-off lineup that would unfortunately never be repeated. Recorded at the 1999 Mountain Aire Music Festival on a beautiful sunny day at Calavaras County Fairgrounds, this permutation of Phil & Friends features Lesh and Molo providing the foundation for soloists, Warren Haynes and Steve Kimock on guitars and one of the most gifted Bay Area musicians of all time, keyboardist Merl Saunders, who had sparked Jerry Garcia to many of his creative peaks. In addition to this core quintet, former Grateful Dead harmony vocalist, Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay lends her voice to the proceedings.
The first set of the afternoon contains four extended sequences, beginning with a nice breezy take on The Allman Brother's classic "Blue Sky" to set the scene. A pairing of the Phish song "Wolfman's Brother" with "Bertha" comes next. Although the vocals are primarily a shambles, both serve to gradually increase momentum for the rest of the set, which really begins taking off on the next sequence.
As shaky as the vocals were up to this point, Warren Haynes redeems the band on that front by delivering the most penetrating vocal of the entire set on his own "Patchwork Quilt," which has the band burning at a new intensity level. This is a wonderful performance in every regard, with no better example of Lesh's beautiful melodic bass work right up front in the mix. As the final verse trails off, Lesh and Molo propel the group into a jam on "The Other One," one of the Dead's primary jam vehicles. Things continue to heat up and then really take off after they launch into "Confusion." Once Merle struggles through the vocal, this becomes one hot funky jam, with everyone contributing. In fact, Lesh has never sounded funkier than he does right here and the jam heads for the psychedelic stratosphere where the band remains for the duration of this set.
In fact, they close this first set by pairing two classic Lennon songs from The Beatles "Revolver" album that have literally come to define the psychedelic stratosphere in terms of music, "She Said She Said," which was written about an acid trip experience and the apocalyptic "Tomorrow Never Knows."
Following Lesh's monologue encouraging organ donation and a short break, the band would return for a second set, which would sail even deeper into the psychedelic landscape that concludes this set.