Phil Lesh & Friends
SOB's - New York, NY 4/9/07
(seltist from very generous annotators on Philzone.com)
Built To Last
Let It Ride
McCray intros the band
Gentleman Start Your Engines>
7 Minutes to Radio Darkness>
Elevator St Stephen>
Not Fade Away
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.