Take a fine Saturday evening on the cusp of autumn, add a dash of rain to clear the air, and set the most faithful of the currently touring bands to come out of the Grateful Dead on stage, and you have a recipe for some people’s idea of bliss. Phil Lesh’s bass guitar was the pulsing heart of the Dead for several decades, and his funky, syncopated, and melodic playing is as fresh as ever. With this ensemble Lesh covered a handful of songs from other sympathetic classic rock artists, along with a healthy dose of the Dead’s most memorable and bass-intensive numbers.
The night began with what was once a live rarity, “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)”-the first song on the first side of the Dead’s debut album. “The Golden Road” is an upbeat hippie anthem with a carefree and apolitical slant, and it still sounds great today. Lesh’s friends on this tour include the veteran multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and the fiery 26-year-old guitarist and singer Jackie Greene. Both men managed to carry off their respective duties without coming across like Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir wannabes. Campbell in particular imparted an understated elegance to the guitar parts on such numbers as “Sugaree” and “Cold Rain and Snow.”
Deadheads who found Lesh and friends a less than satisfying substitute for cherished bootlegs and flashback-inflected memories are to be forgiven. There was plenty to be missed and lamented in the gap between the present and the past. But for the rest of us, the key to enjoying the show was to remember to listen to Lesh. Whether he was playing along to Greene’s sizzling guitar work on Bob Dylan’s “You Got to Serve Somebody” or leaping acrobatically into the bass theme of “The Other One,” Lesh was always fully in the moment. And though there was no encore, satisfied smiles were still as ever present as gray hair and tie dye; a tribute to the engaging and modest version of the Grateful Dead’s music this veteran had pieced together.