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Phil Lesh Goes There and Back Again (Relix Revisited)

by Richard B. Simon on March 15, 2015

Phil Lesh turns 75 today. In honor of the occasion, we present this cover story from the June-July 2002 issue of Relix. In Richard B. Simon’s article he discusses the passing of Jerry Garcia, his relationship with his Grateful Dead bandmates and the development of Phil Lesh and Friends, including his performances with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell in April 1999.

When the Grateful Dead folded in 1995, bassist Phil Lesh was happy to be able to spend some time at home with his kids. But the music wouldn’t let him rest. He started doing benefit shows as Phil Lesh and Friends, playing Dead tunes with various Bay Area musicians. Eventually, guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Mickey Hart, pianist Bruce Hornsby and Lesh regrouped as the Other Ones, and in 1998 they toured with guitarists Steve Kimock and Mark Karan, jazz sax whiz Dave Ellis, and drummer John Molo, to great success.

The party was cut short by Lesh’s near-fatal brush with hepatitis C, which had irreparably damaged his liver and sent him into the hospital later that year for liver transplant surgery.

Lesh emerged from ilness with a new set of priorities, including a mission to champion organ donors and transplant programs. Four months later, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell joined “Phil and Phriends” for three shows in San Francisco, busting some old warhorse tunes out of a thirty-year drydock and helping Lesh realize that the music could never stop.

When business and creative differences arose among Lesh and his former Dead bandmates, Lesh continued on his own trajectory, establishing Phil Lesh and Friends as a nexus for musicians from both the good ol’ psychedelic rock school and the young, blossoming jamband scene, which the Dead’s improvisational aesthetic had spawned. Lesh pursued the spaces between lyrics with a revolving-door lineup that included members of Hot Tuna, Little Feat, the String Cheese Incident, Galactic, moe. and more. The lineup solidified in 1999 with guitarists Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring, keyboardist Rob Barraco and Molo. Contact with the next generation of Dead-influenced musicians reinformed the music and reinvigorated Lesh.

After thirty years with the Grateful Dead – and nearly seven years without – Lesh has released There and Back Again, his first-ever solo album, which is really a collaboration among the band members. The disc sounds like nothing that has come out of the Dead camp before. Its tightly-produced rock sound spans reggae, honky-tonk, avant-garde jazz and even 18th-century polyphonic church music, a la J.S. Bach – occasionally calling up Zappa, Phish, Dire Straits and even Queen.

Kicking back on a couch, in an empty house, high atop a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, Lesh talked about the journey – and dropped a few hints about what may turn out to be a great summer to be a Deadhead.

This is the first ever Phil Lesh album. Do you see a common vein of ideas running through these songs?

Phil Lesh: Everything I’m doing these days reflects the image of a journey – you know, life’s journey. The journey to spiritual awakening, shall we say? What I’ve tried to do with the sets we play live is create a set and then a show and, occasionally, a whole tour that tells a story or describes a journey, because music evolves over time and takes you with it and, in a way, mimics your thought processes and emotions. We tried to do a thing last summer where, over 30 shows, at seven of them we played music sequenced to describe the teaching of the soul’s ascent through the planetary spheres after death. That’s kind of my central metaphor at this time – the journey – and that’s reflected in this album. Each one of these songs is like a little mini-drama, and I think we’ve been very successful in creating an uninterrupted flow; there’s no wasted motion, no noodling. They are little compositions, each one of ‘em. They have a beginning, a middle, an end – they tell a story and the sequencing of the album tells a story.

How do you go about getting a set to tell a story?

Phil: There are three levels. There’s the story the music creates (the story the key creates), the story the grooves create, and sometimes it ends up so the story the lyrics create is the main story and sometimes the music is complementary to it. On a good night I can make it so that all three of these things complement each other perfectly. It’s more of a subliminal effect on the audience than anything else. People come up after the show and say, " Thanks for that great story." It gets in their astral body somehow. Then you’ll see them on the internet, writing about it.

*Do you ever think, “Wow, they really got it?” *

Phil: Oh, yeah. In fact, when we did the planetary thing last summer, there were a couple of guys who were digging into that and deriving numerological correspondences and all this nutty, occult stuff – stuff I never put in there.

Or at least you didn’t consciously put in.

Phil: Not consciously, no. It’s like James Joyce said about Ulysses : “I put enough in there, they’ll be arguing about it for a hundred years.” And I think that’s one of the things I’d like to try to do.

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