Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Phil Lesh 4-9-07 or Waiting For Godot

Phil Lesh & Friends
SOB's - New York, NY 4/9/07

(seltist from very generous annotators on Philzone.com)

Set 1:
Funky Jam>
Big River
Built To Last
Let It Ride

Set 2:
Shakedown Street
Tumbling Dice
McCray intros the band
Gentleman Start Your Engines>
Spacey Jam>
7 Minutes to Radio Darkness>
Elevator St Stephen>
Not Fade Away

Intros/Donor Rap

enc: Turn On Your Lovelight

Estragon: Charming spot. Inspiring prospects. Let's go.
Vladimir: We can't.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We're waiting for Godot.

It was hard to ignore the impending sense of dread many felt walking into this show. On one hand, I thought that I may have just been acting like an unappreciative, jaded New Yorker. After all, I was one of the lucky 400 people who had clicked fast enough to get this impossible ticket (which was inexplicably being sold for $500 on Craigslist and went for $300 cash in front of the club). But on the other hand, I couldn't forget the fact that Phil's shows in the past year have been missing more than hitting, and the band's success has become more and more reliant on high profile guest sit-ins. Phil has moved from the stellar lineup of the PLQ to a downward spiral of B-list and C-list supporting players, and it's been kind of sad to watch, especially since rumor has it that such personnel decisions are more financial than artistic. That being said, this was Phil Lesh I was going to see, and the man is always risky, so anything could happen.

The real wildcard in this lineup was Larry McCray, and I had no idea what a bluesman might bring to the table, so that was appealing. Plus, John Molo was going to be toting the rock behind the kit, and he’s always a bonus. It was enough to make me forget that the forgettable Larry Campbell and Steve Molitz were also on board.

After an approximate 8:20 start, it was evident that Molo was not there, and his chair would be filled by Jaz Sawyer.

Boy: (in a rush). Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening but surely tomorrow.

Later, we would learn that Molo had a bad bout of food poisoning and was incapacitated for the night, so this guy with an obvious jazz background stepped in two hours before the show. It’s never good when the evening begins with an ominous sign like food poisioning.

The opening jam was your typical mush that doesn't go anywhere, but it was okay because they were warming up. “Birdsong” continued to signify that something didn’t sound right, although Phil’s vocals were surprisingly decent. When "Althea" began, McCray sang, and people appreciated hearing a genuine, bonafide singer in this outfit. He was also sounding rather ballsy in his playing, and it seemed as though he was being asked to take the lead. This was a good thing because Larry Campbell plays with all the aggressiveness and ferocity of a neutered manatee. Listen, I'm not a Campbell hater because I loved what he did with Dylan. I just really haven't heard him do a damn thing with Phil. I keep waiting for him to do something noteworthy (and I did a lot of waiting on this evening), but each milquetoast solo continually reinforces the fact that he can't seem to rise above the role of sideman.

At this point, I realized that the drum situation was going to be a problem. It's not that the drummer was bad because he wasn’t bad at all. It's just that he didn't jell with the freewheeling jam-friendly demands of this music. He also didn't seem too familiar with the Grateful Dead repertoire, and after he succeeded in laying a funkier beat on "Althea," his ideas didn't seem to mesh well. The drummer needs to be the metronome in Phil's band, but when the drummer doesn't know what's coming next...Houston, we have a problem.

Vladimir: What are we doing here, that is the question.

“Big River” was uneventful, aside from the fact that Campbell’s square vocals made this the first time that anyone actually sang the words “Saint Lewis” (instead of “Saint Louie”) in this tune. In truth, everything was rather uneventful at this point, but now it was going to start getting quite eventful, although these were not the kind of events you look forward to experiencing.

“Built to Last” was an odd choice for McCray to sing. It was evident that he was not at all familiar with the song, and he botched the vocals badly. He was trying to follow the sheet music, but he was visibly confused and frustrated. He was nowhere near the mark, and it showed. Like a sheep crying out in the night, this song was baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.

Vladimir: A—. What are you insinuating? That we've come to the wrong place?

Why McCray was asked to sing a very obscure work from the Dead’s least prolific era, a song that he clearly did not know, was beyond me. Flustered, his playing and confidence began to suffer for the remainder of the show, despite the crowd and Phil’s good-natured efforts to pump him up. The show had gone from flat to bad, and the “Let It Ride” that followed did not redeem the abbreviated and tremendously unfulfilling set.

Setbreak is when shellshock set in. I had seen frustrating Phil shows before, but I had never seen anything like this. The band was not together, there were no transitions at all, and McCray and Sawyer were being asked to play tunes that were almost entirely unfamiliar to them. Instead of letting the rookie quarterbacks shake off their rocky start with some easy dumpoffs (standard covers) or screen passes (bluesy Pigpen numbers), Coach Phil kept attempting gadget plays (Built to Friggin’ Last?) and deep routes (a Ryan Adams song?). This was not a good gameplan.

We were in bar watching a bar band trudge through covers that leaned heavily on the Grateful Dead songbook. All of of this was heard for a mere $50 cover charge. Yes, this was the most expensive bar band in New York City.

Those around me quickly agreed that we were witnessing an unprecedented display of mediocrity from Phil Lesh and Friends. One guy decided to buy a t-shirt as a souvenir of the band’s newfound low point. Of course, this being a Dead alumni show, the lemmings were out in full force, tickled pink to hear a song they could sing along with (no matter how badly the vocals were being shanked). Oblivious to what was being played, their sentiment seemed to be “Would it be better to sit and sulk at home over the fact that Jerry’s been dead for 12 years?” I find such bizarre logic to be depressing because this music was not good.

Vladmir: The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener. At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

Set Two began and I held out hope for improvement, waiting for something good to happen.

Estragon: Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.

“Shakedown Street” started funky, and Sawyer felt comfortable. McCray seemed like he was doing okay for a few minutes, but then he got completely lost with the vocal lines, and he had no idea where to go before the song abruptly ended with a thud. The same held true for “Loser.” It was not pretty.

Vladimir: What do you do when you fall far from help?
Pozzo: We wait till we can get up. Then we go on. On!

Suddenly, redemption seemingly arrived in the form of a familiar Stones riff. “Tumbling Dice” began, and it was evident that everyone felt comfy. McCray was especially in the groove, relishing the vocals and guitar lines. It was here that I learned that Christina Durfree was singing backup vocals in the band. All night long, she had been stationed behind a support pillar, so I couldn’t see her. Up until this point, I couldn’t hear her either, but when she sang “You got to roll me,” that was her first and only contribution of the night. I am not kidding. Those five words were the only time her vocals were audible throughout the evening. Speaking of, the sound was embarrassingly bad, with a very weak P.A. that featured no backup vocals, no keyboards, and not enough bass. On the plus, side drinks cost 10 bucks and bottles of water were $4, so it was a great venue for a show!

“Tumbling Dice” was the first adequate number of the night. It really was adequate and not much more. People will say it was awesome because it was unexpected, and it was the first time the band sounded like a band, but it was still nothing special. It only looked awesome in comparison to the crap that had preceded it.

Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.

After the song ended, McCray took an impromptu moment to introduce the band. A bandmember jumping on the mic to start talking was definitely out-of-character for Phil Lesh and Friends, but McCray’s candor and attitude was refreshing. Then he genuinely thanked Phil and the crowd for the opportunity to play this music. He also admitted that he was "hanging on by the seat of (his) pants" and he didn't "really know what (he was) doing up here." I am not kidding when I say this, but this thank you was the highlight of the night, which is both a testament to McCray’s heartfelt sincerity and the crowd’s appreciation, as well as the overwhelming mediocrity of the evening’s music.

“Gentlemen Start Your Engines” and the spacey jam that followed were a return to the blahs. I had noticed that almost no one was really dancing this evening. Some people were bobbing their head and one dude was obnoxiously clapping, but that was it. This music wasn’t moving us.

That being said, there was some excitement in the air, as someone was apparently outside selling balloons on the sidewalk. How this was happening without the knowledge of the NYPD was beyond me. I never thought I'd see the day when people would walk out of a Phil show for the chance to huff some Argon in 35 degree weather, but it apparently happened.

You know something is fucked up at a Phil show when you’re psyched to hear the Particle tune. “Elevator” was Molitz’ first and only chance to play some audible notes, and he went full bore with weird synth effects. Campbell actually held his own on some decent guitar lines, Sawyer laid down a decent groove, and the band had a credible trance thing happening. Of course, it was a trance, so it was incredibly repetitive and relatively uneventful, but the whole jam was still a welcome escape from the rest of the night’s boredom.

When “St. Stephen” began, two very odd things occurred. One, the intro was destroyed and they started over. Two, this was the only time in my life that I heard the opening notes to “St. Stephen” and thought “No, please don’t play this song!” I was deathly afraid of what McCray and Sawyer might do to this classic. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it was very rough. Mike and I then began debating whether or not they would throw the entire show in the shitter by attempting to tackle “The Eleven,” which would surely be the trainwreck of trainwrecks. (We actually envisioned a worse-case scenario where they would attempt King Solomon’s Marbles>Slipknot!>The Eleven.) Thankfully, it did not come to pass.

However, Phil attempted to transition into “Not Fade Away,” but Sawyer was confused and everyone stopped playing. Molitz then banged out the riff and a slow recovery was made. Again, NFA was quite lackluster and just didn’t have much juice. The wind had already come out of their sails.

Estragon: Nothing to be done.
Vladimir: I'm beginning to come round to that opinion.

Before the encore, Phil made a point to tell everyone that this group had only one day of rehearsal and Sawyer only had two hours to learn the music. (Believe me, it showed on all fronts.) It was almost as if he was admitting, “Yeah, I know this kinda sucks, but we’ll get better tomorrow.”

“Turn On Your Lovelight” was a good choice for McCray, and he handled the vocals well, although the song was very short, and like everything else over the course of the night, lacked real fire or grit.

I’ve seen less-than-stellar Phil shows, and I’ve seen some bad Phil shows (featuring Paul Barrere and Billy Payne or Barry Sless and Campbell), but this was clearly the worst of the lot. It wasn’t so much that the bad parts were horrible, it was more about everything being so damn dull and pointless. Even those lousy shows in the past had some true peaks, but this show had no peaks at all, just a lot of low plateaus and valleys. I can’t fault McCray and Sawyer because they tried hard, but they were both out of their element and were too unfamiliar with the music to succeed in their roles. Phil could have made it easier by tweaking the setlist to play to their strengths, but he went the opposite way, and they couldn’t really handle it.

Perhaps tomorrow will be better, especially if Molo recovers from his encounter with bad sushi. However, I don’t know that one day of rehearsal will cause a miracle here. Of course, rumors abound for Tuesday’s show, citing possible sit-ins from everyone from Warren Haynes to Trey Anastasio to Elijah. (Word has it that all three will be free after sundown.) Truthfully, I don’t know if such prospects will be enough to lure me back for one more night. I just kept waiting for something to happen on Monday, but Godot never arrived.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.


WeightStaff said...

Hey, nice review -- and mostly true. I was at the show too, and although I agree with much of what you wrote, I still managed to have an overall good time (maybe because my ticket was free). I actually thought Campbell was the only one (other than Phil) who knew what was going on. On the bright side, at least the beer worked!

Check out my brief review for a slightly different perspective.



RIK said...

I wasn't there, but from what I can gather from Zoners I know who were there, it wasn't a stellar show.

Next to Warren and Jimmy, however, I like Larry and Barry. I think the shows from last year at the Beacon and Hammerstein were stellar, especially Sat. and Sun. at the Hammer.

Anonymous said...

The show could not possibly be as tedious as your review. Who the fuck died and made you the worlds greatest music critic,

Brian Ferdman said...

I certainly never bestowed that title upon myself. I'm honored that you would like to give it to me, but I'm afraid I cannot accept.

Anonymous said...

You completely missed the point of these shows and dont understand Phil Lesh and Friends. Stick with RatDog...or keep prayin' Trey shows up u tool.

Anonymous said...

Did you go the following night? Even the Grateful Dead had shitty shows which were usually followed by great ones. And guess what? Phil did the same thing at SOB's!!! Did you catch the following night?

Brian Ferdman said...

I did go the following night. Having Molo on board made things just about 8 million times better. Molo's steady and flowing drumming was able to mask the fact that McCray did not have sufficient rehearsal, and the band did not have to lean on McCray to lead. When they did turn to McCray, he was fine, as long as it was not a Dead song. He still seemed completely unfamiliar with the Dead tunes and was a fish-out-of-water on the psychedelic numbers. Nevertheless, Tuesday was an enjoyable, good show.

That doesn't take away from the fact that Monday was a shameful embarrassment.

Brian Ferdman said...

You completely missed the point of these shows and dont understand Phil Lesh and Friends. Stick with RatDog...or keep prayin' Trey shows up u tool.

I have always dreamed of the day when someone would make a truly asinine comment on my blog, and you sir have made my dreams come true. I cannot thank you enough.

Perhaps you can tell me "the point" of these shows, or maybe you can unravel the "mystery" of Phil Lesh and Friends. I would think that after 20-some shows I would understand, but obviously I do not. Please teach me, O wise one.

And thanks for the crack about Ratdog. I'm still laughing at the notion of me being a Ratdog fan.

Anonymous said...

How many Grateful Dead shows have you seen?

Brian Ferdman said...

Oh, goodie. Here we go.

I haven't seen X-number of Grateful Dead shows. Therefore, I am unqualified to offer an opinion on a terrible Phil Lesh and Friends performance. Super.

I only saw two Dead shows live. Hundreds more on tape. How is this relevant?

Anonymous said...

"I did go the following night. Having Molo on board made things just about 8 million times better."

-Where's the review?!

"Molo's steady and flowing drumming was able to mask the fact that McCray did not have sufficient rehearsal, and the band did not have to lean on McCray to lead. When they did turn to McCray, he was fine, as long as it was not a Dead song. He still seemed completely unfamiliar with the Dead tunes and was a fish-out-of-water on the psychedelic numbers."

-The beauty of the 2 shows is that they were both played without a net, and most likely on minimal rehearsal time. Larry McCray doesnt play dead songs you retard! ..cant you understand or have any appreciation for what Phil did in 2 days with a band like that? From reading your blog i get the impression you feel he owes you something more. What phil was able to produce in 2 days with that band is not only impressive, but totally unorthodox. He could have mailed it in and got any of the numerous rockstars in town that night to sit in with him.

If you cant respect that you dont understand Phil Lesh and Friends...and you completely missed the MAGIC that happened last febuary in New York! I feel for you, and the 20 P&F shows you wasted your time going too.

Anonymous said...

fuckin phishies!!!!!!

Brian Ferdman said...

Why didn’t I review the Tuesday gig? Because several others beat me to the punch and essentially articulated what I had to say on the topic. I had nothing new to add, so I wasn’t going to waste time writing a redundant review.

This is my personal blog. It’s not a music industry publication. I am not under any obligation to cover anyone or anything. I write what I want when I want. No one forces you to read it.

The beauty of the 2 shows is that they were both played without a net,

Phil always plays without a net. And on Monday, his band played without a net, and it sounded atrocious. Sorry, but these are all professional musicians, and they don’t get points just for trying.

and most likely on minimal rehearsal time.

Again, having minimal rehearsal time is not something we should applaud. Not when you charge people money to watch what is essentially a rehearsal that’s billed as a performance.

Larry McCray doesnt play dead songs you retard!

You really are a fucking idiot.

There are clueless apologists, and there are morons, but you belong in your own special category of invalids.

I know Larry McCray doesn’t play Dead songs, but on this night, he was asked to play Dead songs. He was sent an iPod full of Dead songs two weeks prior to the gig, so he could learn the music. He also had one day of rehearsal with the band. Obviously, this was not enough, and whenever they turned to him to lead a Dead song, he couldn’t deliver. On both nights, his eyes were glued to the teleprompter and he still got lost. The moral of the story is that the man needed more preparation before he got out in front of a paying public. The only time he looked comfortable on either night was when he was singing a song that he knew (“Tumbling Dice,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Next Time You See Me,” etc.) If the guy wasn’t ready, why was he asked to play songs he did not know when there were countless other covers, standards, or even Pigpen tunes he could have handled? Why is this so hard for your feeble fucking brain to grasp?

..cant you understand or have any appreciation for what Phil did in 2 days with a band like that?

Why do you want to salute him for only having two days of rehearsals? They sounded like an under rehearsed, unprepared band, although Molo’s experience made up for it on the second night, and had he been there, he probably could have salvaged the first night, as well. I love jamming, and it’s fine to jam with no rehearsals, but you can’t play songs together as a band if you haven’t rehearsed them sufficiently. Otherwise, it sounds like the mediocre crap they played on Monday.

From reading your blog i get the impression you feel he owes you something more.

Thanks for you analysis, Dr. Fraud, but you are wrong. It would have been nice if Phil had taken the gigs seriously enough to prepare his band to play in front of a paying audience, but you roll the dice at Phil shows, and you never know what you’ll get. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it sucks. Monday sucked. I am owed nothing, but I saw a show that I disliked, and I felt that it’s okay to express my opinion on my own blog. As far as I know, we’re still allowed to express our opinion in the country, even though people like you are unwittingly trying to crush dissent at every turn.

He could have mailed it in and got any of the numerous rockstars in town that night to sit in with him.

Well, now you’re just showing your naiveté. You obviously don’t understand much about the economics of the music industry.

If you cant respect that you dont understand Phil Lesh and Friends...and you completely missed the MAGIC that happened last febuary in New York!

What the Hell does any of this have to do with “the MAGIC that happened last febuary in New York”? You’re talking about a different band in a different venue at a different time. It’s not the slightest bit relevant to what happened on Monday.

Anonymous said...

you undeserving, ungrateful... fish fan.

get hit by a bus!

Anonymous said...

You probably went just hoping Trey would show up, you damn TOOL! STAY HOME leave the tickets to the fans you DOOSH BAG!!!

Brian Ferdman said...

I'm trying to figure out if it's just one moron on here who keeps making irrelevant and baseless comments about Phish and Trey, while pussying out under an Anonymous sig, or are there multiple pussies posting who are all in dire need of a lobotomy?

Any idiot with a brain knew that Trey was appearing in court, and it was virtually certain he would not be there. But thanks for playing! Tune in next time for another riveting epsiode of The Dregs of Humanity on Parade!

Anonymous said...

I (heart) Ratdog

pz said...

What a refreshing review of a Phil show! Nice to read actual intelligent music criticism about the Dead-- by someone not content to simply pay up and shut up. Thank you, by the way.

I guess I'm wondering if you've heard anything about the NYC-based Phil shows. (Good? Bad? Mediocre?)

Ben Lazar said...

Just came across your blog and enjoyed your irreverent review of the Phil show. I saw 30+ Dead shows back in the day, but haven't seen any Dead alumni. To be honest, given the fact that I only saw Dead shows in the declining years (89-95), your review reminded me of some Dead shows I saw, especially in 94-95. And the response by "anonymous" reminded me of the Deadheads who would tell me I was an asshole anytime I criticized what was, in my opinion, a substandard show.

BillyBlastoff said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your review. I've seen many Phil shows. My favorites were the PLQ and Scofield shows. My first Grateful Dead show was in 1978 and I saw many shows until I stopped after the 94 tour.

What made your review so enjoyable was the originality. I played the role of Vladimir in "Godot" many years ago. A rudderless Phil show is very much like the barren stage in "Waiting for Godot".

Thank you for an honest and creative review. Excellent job!

Billy Blastoff

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