Charity knows no bounds for the Todd brothers (Photo:McKenna)
Phil Lesh celebrates his 70th
There are moments in life, albeit short and fleeting ones, when everything just feels right, or at least right on.
Most of the time, these moments are seldom noticed by more than a few lucky people (a kiss, a High Sierra sunset, landing a monster trout, a drunken group hug, the birth of a child, getting lucky enough to catch that child a couple years later smacking dad in the family jewels with a wiffle ball bat…you get the point).
But there are some truly special times when the magic of the moment is felt en masse (a walk-off home run, a wedding, a historic political election, sale prices on beer, the intro to Scarlet Begonias, the fall of communism…you get the hazy picture).
And whatever magic stuff these moments are made out of, it appears that you can bottle the stuff, or at least smoke it. Because somehow Phil Lesh has been managing to be a big part of just such magical moments for the better part of his seven decades dancing on this earth.
“One watch by night, one watch by day. If you get confused, listen to the music play.”
On Friday March 12, in front of a frolicking, frothing crowd at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, Phil Lesh sang the aforementioned line during his 70th birthday bash and benefit concert for the Haitian Earthquake Relief fund.
It’s a line most famously sung by Phil’s former band mate, the late, great Jerry Garcia. Of course that band, the Grateful Dead, which first began forming their fanatical following way back in the psychedelic Sixties, met its untimely demise on that hot summer night back in 1995 when Jerry finally decided to go to that big concert hall/all-you-can-eat-and-drink-buffet in the sky.
But even though Jerry died and the remaining members of the band swore to never play again as the “Grateful Dead,” after seeing Phil and his “phriends” play, the music Garcia helped create lives on.
“As I picked up my matches and was closing the door, I had one of those flashes. I’d been there before, been there before.”
Even though they’re old enough to join the AARP, original Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir are far from retirement. Not only can they still play, and play well, they can both still tune into that magic that makes legions of fans from all over the nation continue to pack their shows.
This winter, they toured the country with a collection of musicians known as Further and Friends. And it’s Phil and Bob’s friends who are really keeping the music of the Grateful Dead alive. Unlike their geriatric cohorts (see: The “Reclining” Stones or The Who “Are Those Geezers?”) the old dogs of the Dead have found some talented young pups to carry things further along.
The line-up for Phil’s birthday soiree included Chris Robinson of Black Crowes fame, John Kadlecik aka “Fake Jerry,” “Pseudo Jerry” or “Jerry Junior” of Dark Star Orchestra and the 20-something phenom Jackie Green, who put on a legendary performance at the Blue Sky Festival in Mammoth last summer.
The most amazing part about this new collection of musicians, playing the same old classic tunes like Franklin’s Tower or St Stephen, is that they not only make the music their own, they somehow still do justice to the original band.
There were moments during the show when the music was nothing short of mesmerizing, and the magic it created was so intense that I couldn’t remember if I was a 39-year old husband and dad or a 19-year old tie-dyed clad kid. Although, the smoky haze in the hallowed old hall might’ve had something to do with it.
“Talk about your plenty. Talk about your ills. One man gathers what another man spills.”
It was actually my younger brother, Peter, who got me into the Grateful Dead, during that awkward prison sentence known as high school. But it wasn’t the smoky lifestyle or the tie-dyes that got us into the Grateful Dead. We both just dug the music. The fact that our greater Boston high school was filled to the brim with cute hippie chicks that loved the Dead too didn’t hurt any either.
But up until the day Pete played a few tunes from the “Grateful Dead Starter Kit,” Skeletons from the Closest, I didn’t know the difference between Uncle John or Casey Jones, let alone who Tennessee Jed is. I thought the Grateful Dead was more about lifestyle and an ability to actually put up with the stench of patchouli oil than it was about the music. Now, however, I know differently and I’m certainly better for it.
Despite their usual pungent aromas, Deadheads are generally really nice, harmless, kind-hearted, happy people who just so happen to have a penchant for being overcome by the “munchies” and listening to music that can be transcending.
“Spent a little time on the mountain. Spent a little time on the hill. Things went down that we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.”
What was really most amazing about the show—besides the fact the Phil still has a full head of rusty-colored hair—was witnessing the true power of the music.
The concert covered an astonishing six hours (and good luck finding any other band, let alone a band led by senior citizens, able to do anything for six hours without the help of Viagra) with a few “short breaks” thrown in.
They played everything from classics like Ripple, to Bob Dylan covers and Happy Birthday to Phil, to obscure stuff that even stumped the biggest Deadheads like Cream Puff War. And for the whole show, fans ranging from infants to the elderly, danced and sung along in sheer delight.
It was as if, for just one night, time stopped and all was right in the world, mankind was a true brotherhood and Jerry had returned from the buffet line at the Pearly Gates for one more show.
But sooner or later, this show too had to come to an end. I guess that moments, even the truly great ones, like the ones shared by thousands at Phil Lesh’s 70th birthday bash, can’t go on forever. Or maybe, they can.
The best part about the latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead is that you no longer have to wait a few months before buying a bootleg of the show from someone who smells like they’ve had a patchouli and cannabis enema.
Nowadays, you can buy the freshly recorded CDs just minutes after the show, and relive every blurry, glorious moment of it on the way home.
“Once and a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”