For the first weekend of February, Denver’s Mission Ballroom once again became a mecca for travelers seeking the psychedelic and for those who made the leap of faith, the reward was great. Grateful Dead bassist and living legend Phil Lesh gave the Rino district two nights of splendor, sound, and the opportunity once again to rejoice in community under a blanket of aural pleasantries that would defy expectation. For this stretch in the octogenarian's journey, he brought along some old friends as well as some new faces. The usual suspects included his son Grahame Lesh on guitar and John “The Great White Cloud” Molo on drums, while the new infusion consisted of Goose guitarist Rick Mitarotonda and the Trey Anastasio Horns, namely trombonist Natalie “Chainsaw” Cressman, Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet, and sax man James Casey. Rounding out the octet was past collaborator and multi-instrumentalist of pure talent Jason Crosby.
Saturday night got started with a touch of tuning before Phil signaled the group to drop back tonally and, joined by Grahame, Natalie, Jenn, and James, sang out a verse that in DeadHead land historically accompanied a night full of potential realized:
Shall we go, you and I while we can / Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?
For anyone in the know, getting a show going with “Dark Star” leading the charge meant that everyone in attendance was in for something special. For those who caught the Planet Bluegrass show in September of 2021, this reconfigured “Dark Star” intro was akin to that rendering and that fall day would mark the first time the band had led with an a capella intro to the psychedelic staple. With only a single lyrical line, the band jammed on the theme for a few minutes and returned to earth in the form of an upbeat “Ripple”, a “Rockin’ Ripple” according to the paper setlist hanging above Molo’s floor tom, Phil handling vocals and brightening the room.
Next up was “Ship of Fools” sung so sweetly by Rick Mitarotonda. Without much of an intro, Rick seemed eager to get right into the lyrics. Although his delivery was heartfelt, the band seemed to rush it a bit, leaving very little in the way of interlude. “Jack Straw” was a direct one-eighty from its predecessor and got the full treatment. Containing a lengthy beginning and great interplay between the guitars and Crosby’s piano, this one was off to a great start. While Phil and Grahame alternated portions of the lyrics, Nat, Jen, and Casey added bright harmonies to beautiful brass play. The midsection jam downshifted, mellowed, and breathed, allowing for everyone to accent in texture, showing the whole of the group’s mastery in movement. The last four minutes hit pay dirt and had everyone climbing and spinning to the punchy exit of the song.
This fanbase always willing to receive a Lesh gem, Phil was met with raucous applause at the start of “Pride of Cucamonga”, Phil belting out the lyrics and showing the world he is far from going out anytime soon. This outing out a great had the deepest of Phil fans beaming from the inside out with glee. Contributing on the backup, Nat, Jen, and James all lended a hand on the chorus portion of the song. When the number hit the bluesy halfway point, sh*t got deep and thick! Guitars sizzled, horns smoked, and although many wished it would have gone longer, what we got was enough to show the band was so much more than a one-off or a parlor trick.
The frisky feline “China Cat Sunflower” was greeted with loud recognition at that old familiar intro. Rick took another turn at lead vocals, and with eyes closed and his light vibrato, he was noticeably putting his all into this command. The horn arrangement also added a full and triumphant march to the structure. Phil bubbled along, both musically and facially, watching the new school contribute and enjoying every minute of it. The segue section also contained a great Latin flavor from Molo, some great horn arrangements, and a call response section between James Casey on alto and all the other players, each lining up to alternate lines with him. Casey eventually peeled away from the gang and, with arched back and tight face, just wailed! Shifting from south of the border and moving into the delta, Rick returned to the microphone to deliver on a soulful “New Speedway Boogie”, The Mission singing along in unison. Two stanzas of lyrics down and the jam got downright nasty, Rick fanning the flame of the fretboard and the horn sections pushing bursts and pops, upping the fervor of the room as the band stomped through this one.
The end faded off into an a capella round of the One way or another lyric before pausing for the set closer. With the recent passing of David Crosby, Phil and the band took a moment to honor our fallen brother with “Long Time Gone”. What added to the specialness of this choice was this was the first time it had been played under the Phil and Friends flag since 2021 and was Phil’s first public performance since Crosby’s passing. Grahame led the charge on vocals with the rest of the group doing their best to emulate the sweet harmonies of CSN that made this song and that group so special. James took the second stanza and was warmly received, his buttery voice full of emotional, inflection, and umph. Hartswick literally tackled the third lyrical stand, filling that room with power and lightness in the same breath. The middle got loose and Jason eventually stepped up from his organ bench and shredded the fiddle, leaving the crowd clapping and wishing he would have gone for more, his stint much too short. Natalie hit the ball out of the park in the fourth inning and showed she is not a one horn pony, deserving the respect and accolades she received from her lyrical delivery. In the end, the whole band sang the haunting line Appears to be a long time / Such a long, long, long, long time / Before the dawn in unison and for those near the front, it was clear to see Phil shedding tears in memoriam for the passing of the author. As the applause of the crowd dwindled following the final notes, Phil stepped to the mic, weepy and vocally shaken:
That last one was for my friend, David. Anyway, we are going to take a short break. Turn and talk to the person next to you, share joy, shake hands….enjoy the proximity of your butt. Bye bye.
The set two dance party fired up with a strong and bass Philled “Viola Lee Blues”. Following the initial lyrics, the music shifted and fringed at the edges, reaching for the odd. Wave after wave of minor chaos rolled over the crowd, causing many to close their eyes and climb aboard their inner transport, bound for space. Unsettling in for the nearly four minutes of cosmic swirl, when the band finally dropped back with perfection, the audience audibly thanked them for the discord and discomfort of joy.
As the opener dispersed in its final notes, Mount St. Molo picked up the tempo, a familiar meter, and initiated the “China Cat” partner in “I Know You Rider”. This gleeful tune got all the warm and uplifting feeling from the six stringed brothers one would expect and with the audience singing along at full volume, the gladness of the room was felt by all, new and old. Of course, with the Cool Colorado rain lyric, the volume only increased with locale recognition. Grahame threw down a great demonstration of his abilities on the slide and continued on past his allotted measures as the crowd egged him on. In the wash of the near a capella closing with everyone singing along, the warm fuzzies and tingling goosebumps spread throughout the ballroom.
For those who have long held that the Philzone is the best place on earth, “Unbroken Chain” was the sweet treat we had all been waiting for. With its odd phrasing and pensive lyrics, this one has always reflected Phil’s ability at composition and power and the jam in the middle got taken over the top. Although some say that Phil’s voice is an acquired taste, those with the discerning palette loved getting to hear the big guy sing this revered number.
Where most versions stop, this ventured on and quickly slid into the warmth of another David Crosby piece “Tamalpais High (At About 3)". The construct and vibe of the horns wrapped the audience in a balmy brass blanket that glowed and ushered in comfort. Rick and Grahame traded off leading and chasing, taking time to answer the calls of Jason as he threw out lines, gazing and grinning at the two. Phil sat back and watched the magic unfold around this storied lyricless piece.
Taking a moment here to honor this song and David Crosby, the details around "Tamalpais High (At About 3)" reveal that this tune appeared on Crosby’s 1971 release If I Could Only Remember My Name and was written in the wake of the highly impactive death of Crosby’s deepest love, Christine Hinton. As the tale goes, Crosby spent much of his time following this tragedy held up in Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, creating and playing music, to escape the pain he was attempting to endure. Throughout this period, he invited a multitude of bay area friends to come in and contribute to open jam sessions that would later be the end result of the tunes of the album. Among them included Joni Mitchell, members of Jefferson Airplane, and of course who else but members of The Grateful Dead. Reading the liner notes, the final version of this track on the album included Bill Kreutzmann on the drums, Jerry Garcia on guitar, and none other than Phil Lesh on bass, a dynamic that obviously carried an emotional connection on this night at The Mission unknown by most or forgotten by some.
Back to it, like Crosby ascending, so did the music, building and turning, eventually settling, easing into the familiar sounds of “Wharf Rat”. Grahame, accompanied by all familiar with the tale of woe and question, belted out the lyrics. Armed with the tenor sax, James added sweet fragments around the written component as well into the interlude, often departing from simple phrasing and entering into the frenetic. Coming in at over fourteen minutes, this one was the longest venture of the night and covered everything from the soft and delicate to the boisterous and riveting, leaving nothing in between untouched.
Teasing what seemed like “Me and My Uncle”, the band pulled one over on the audience and opted to go with a great take on “Help On The Way”. Incisive and animated, this one came in with high energy and had Rick again at the vocal helm. Entering into “Slipknot”, the room spurred the band on with whistles and cheers, driving the octet to keep the energy high, the floor churning and seething as one moving organism. As the knot tightened and listeners waited for it all to break free into the release of “Franklin’s Tower”, the band, full of surprise, turned on a dime, right into “Mississippi Half Step.” Again, led by Rick, his voice young and vibrant, those who love to sing threw in with him and marched the tune together in support. The crescendo featured great work and agility by Rick and reflected the depth of his old soul approach to this music. The tail end had the horn section singing Across the lazy river in repetition before they faded and the snap of “Franklin’s Tower” kept it all going. Although everyone got a turn to sing on this one, the biggest reception was when Phil stepped to the mic and when he reached the lyric If you get confused / listen to the music play, the place just went wild, scurrying with delight in search of their marbles.
With a brief pause, Phil returned to the stage alone:
Wow! Hi, guys. Is this a pretty nice venue or what?!?! Great sight lines, great sound, GREAT CROWD, C’MON! The first thing I want to do tonight is thank you for coming out and helping us make this music as you well know. It’s the energy and love we get from you that makes us feel free to go off into the zone, as it were, and see what we can find. So thank you for that because without that energy and confidence that we have in you guys, we would just be sitting here noodling.
I would also like to remind everyone how easy it is to become an organ donor. You simply turn to someone that you love and loves you and who knows you well and say to them,” If anything ever happens to me, I want to be an organ donor”. It is the simplest thing in the world and there you have done it and you can feel good about it.
We have some more music for you. I would like to bring the musicians of the band back on and introduce them to you. My friends, please. This is just an incredible lineup. On keys and violin, Jason Crosby. On guitar and vocals, Rick Mitarotonda. On guitar and vocals, Grahame Lesh. Anchoring the whole thing on the drums, the mighty white cloud, John Molo. And we have our incredible vocalists and horn players, Natalie Cressman on trombone, Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet, and James Casey on saxophone.
Pausing here for a moment, the outpouring of love that James Casey received during his introduction was deafening to say the least and seemed largely due to the fact that many through the musical community knew he had been facing cancer treatments for the better part of nearly six months. As that room let him know how they felt about his positive impact not only on the night but in the world of live performance, he stood there, smile as wide as the sky and tearful eyes, looking out and humbled in that most human and overwhelming of moments from the cascade of pure positivity and love from a room full of familiar strangers. If that wasn’t enough, his mom also happened to be in the house that night and she beamed in his success almost as much as he did.
And by the way, it just happens to be James' birthday. I won’t tell you how old he is, I will let him do that if he wants to. We have a little something here for him. Now we are going to sing Happy Birthday to James.
With that a lady with a cake adorned with two simple candles was brought out for the birthday boy. James made his way over to Phil’s rig where the pastry waited for him to extinguish its tiny flames, and at his completion of the task, the room once again filled with overpowering gratitude and great vibes. The cake whisked away, Phil hugged James and then placed his hands on his shoulders and began speaking to him. Whatever he was saying caused James to stand up very straight and tall, his posture signaling that what this Godfather of Life and Survival was telling him carried a lot of weight. James stood there, taking it all in, and at Phil’s unheard finish, James wept and hugged Phil again. Phil then picked up an urn, contents unknown, and handed it to James, eyes still full of tears, and told him what it was. One could physically see that James was overwhelmed by the gravity of the gift and moved deeply, illustrating disbelief at this moment, his heart overfilled more than it possibly ever had been. Taking a step back and stepping into James’ shoes, one can only imagine what it must have felt like to experience the love from the crowd with the birthday announcement, followed by being honored by Phil Lesh, and then gifted something so special that it physically had an effect and all of this after battling cancer and getting a second lease on life. If appreciation was a physical fuel source, that man alone, in that moment, could have powered a planet. Writing this in retrospect and as witness, I count myself blessed having the opportunity to share this wonder-filled moment with those who couldn’t make night one.
To Phil the cup one more time with the bounty of love, “Box of Rain” was the song of choice and summed up the celebration of life and was the perfect nightcap, leaving everyone satiated and reset. As the house lights came up, delight, jubilation, and contentedness abounded in every face and heart. Most made their way out into the cold night silent and warmed from the inside out and as heads rolled out onto the surrounding streets, the only thing that added to momentary perfection incarnate was the fact that we all had another night of bliss on the horizon.