Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Donna Jean Godchaux McKay - vocals; Warren Haynes - guitar, vocals; Steve Kimock - guitar; Merl Saunders - keyboards, vocals; John Molo - drums
Among the Grateful Dead spin-off projects, when it comes to capturing the original improvisatory spirit on which the original band made its name, it's Phil Lesh & Friends who consistently come closest to living on the edge of the dream. The air of excitement that made every Dead show a unique experience lives and breathes onstage with Lesh, who thoroughly embraces and understands the freeform esthetic. He and his ever-evolving cast of characters have maintained a level of excellence that few other jam bands can lay claim to and have proven themselves masters of the exploratory jams that were a trademark of the original Dead.
An ongoing project for well over a decade now, bassist Lesh and drummer John Molo, are arguably one of the most adventurous and melodically sophisticated rock rhythm sections out there working today. 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 the challenge and who enjoy playing without boundaries. In addition to the Dead material, they explore an unlimited range of covers, spanning nearly every musical genre of the past century. Blues, rock, country, jazz, and avant-garde are all fuel for Phil Lesh & Friends, who approach the material with equal measures of reverence and appreciation while expanding on tradition. The audacious approach has captured them a legion of worldwide fans.
The performance here is one of Lesh's early ventures away from the Phil Zone and features a spectacular one-off lineup that would unfortunately never be repeated. Recorded at the 1999 Mountain Air 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, along with keyboardist Merl Saunders--one of the most gifted Bay Area musicians of all time (and a player who 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 mix.
This is the second set of the day for Lesh & Friends, and they throw down early with a superjam of Anthem of the Sun's "Alligator." "Soulshine" is a song written for the Allman Brothers by Warren Haynes who takes the lead and runs with it here, while Saunders lays down some nice jams of his own on the keys. He also gets his own showcase, "Merl's Tune," which he formerly played live with Jerry. All hands are needed on deck for "The Days Between" which also covers some territory well worn by the mother-band. But you'll find Lesh & Friends are also pretty handy when it comes to rolling out the classic rock. They've got extreme versions of "Like a Rolling Stone" and especially "In the Midnight Hour," which burns up the stage, thanks to Kimock and Haynes, as the set draws to a close.
Finishing with "Mountains of the Moon," from the Aoxomoxoa album, there's nowhere to go but home, though what a day it's been. Somewhere mid-set, Lesh introduces the players on the stage and each band member receives their share of gloriously appreciative cheers. What a pleasure it must be to rock out with such a fine audience reception at Calaveras. If only all gigs could be as sweet as this one at Mountain Air, life would be pretty sweet indeed.