….And the band played on.
Arriving early for round two on Sunday, February 5th, the air was electric with anticipation outside the Mission Ballroom on Phil Lesh’s final night in Denver with his friends. Fueled with the outcome of a great first night, multiple conversations in the already forming lines speculated over the musical possibilities of the evening, including the rest of “Dark Star” in lieu of the full moon or an appropriate “Mission In The Rain”. Certainly, the possibility of Billy Strings sitting in was on everyone’s mind, Strings having wrapped his own three night run the day before and sitting in with Ross James and Andy Thorn in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Of course, the “Never Miss a Sunday Show” theory factored into everyone’s predictive model and with all these dynamics, so much potential was still on the table. With everyone’s continued reeling from the outpouring of love and quality playing on Saturday, the energy of night two, from outside the building, was already climbing.
Keeping to the schedule, the doors opened pretty close to advertised times and a respectful fanbase did their best speed walking demonstration, making for their favored spot, whether rail or bleacher seat, doing their part to honor the requests of the venue’s security while keeping the good name of Deadheads everywhere intact. With acquiring their respective spots, fans weren’t kept waiting too long as Phil and the expected co-conspirators took their rightful spots closer to eight than the night before.
Getting the party started, a full pounding “Shakedown Street” throwdown busted straight out the gate with Phil sounding funky and alive while James Casey took command of the lyrics, adding his own flavor to the delivery. Supported by his brass counterparts and a well-coordinated audience on the obligatory woo’s, the dance party was on! Jason Crosby added some great 70’s clavinet effect, bringing to fruition the vibe of the decade from which the song was born. The charting for the horns breathed great life into this version and grabbed the attention of everyone in the room. With the first ten minutes of the night complete, it was apparent the band was here to give it their all.
“Sugaree” came down the pike next with Natalie Cressman leading the charge. Dressed in black and with microphone in hand, Nat showed her sultry side was not just limited to her sultry slide. Jen Hartswick got the second stanza and took the appropriate gospel path to rapture in front of the Sunday church crowd. Jason pumped it out on the Hammond, spinning the Leslie into dizzying delight. Grahame Lesh slipped on his own quivering slide and pushed the temperature of this one to boiling. Oscillating between soul-changing power and quiet repositions, the band executed this one with top marks, leaving the room intoxicated in elated delirium.
Giving the crowd another bowl full of the soulful, Grahame continued the service with “High Time”. Singing with passion and verve, Grahame often had his eyes closed for this one, throwing his head back in emotion, as he channeled the feeling of the piece through his guitar. Jason wrapped the faithful in sustained organ while the preacher delivered the sermon. John Molo hung back, rapping at the snare’s edge while Lesh kept it tight and simple.
“Deep Elem Blues” transported the room to Nawlins, done right with just the perfect amount of that Cajun flavor and led into the deep south by an Ella Fitzgerald possessed Reverend Hartswick. Trombone Nat slid right into Bourbon Street, adding to the strut of the band. James got the second pass, keeping the recipe authentic while adding some fire and spice. Rick fanned the flames of the gumbo that was already boiling over and filling the belly of everyone dancing in the aisles to get a taste. The Rev even got a turn behind the brass stove, cooking it up and shaking in the proverbial seasoning. Jason switched over for the classic piano sound and shared in the tail end of the first line with some fun, speedy call and response moments with the guitarists.
An upbeat “Dire Wolf” sung by Rick Mitarotonda was short, sweet, and kept everyone on their feet and engaged. At three and a half minutes, this one would mark the shortest tune of the weekend.
Giving everyone a chance to catch their breath, Phil musically announced the next tune with that familiar bass line that embodies “The Wheel”. With a wide structure, the vehicle on an open road can literally go anywhere and, with those opening notes, the crowd warmly climbed aboard. This outing also showed that in spite of chronological age, Phil can keep up with the youthful spirit he surrounds himself with, belting out the lyrics and hanging in the pocket of these upbeat mediums. At eight minutes in, this one went from succinct march to a broader space, opening up into a respiration of exploration, accented with flittering strings and ambient breaths, and towards the end, Phil dropped a bomb that literally shook the walls and bones of The Mission and its inhabitants.
To close out the set, Grahame donned the acoustic and the band once again honored the memory of David Crosby with “Laughing”, yet another track from If I Could Only Remember My Name for which Phil played on. Like the other songs of remembrance from Saturday, this one would also be the first attempt at this tune for Phil and any of his cohorts. James made great on the evocative piece and the ethereal dynamic of the vocal backup by the rest of the band sent chills throughout the room. At its close, the audience unified in recognition of the moment as the band smiled and took in the moment. Before walking off, Phil hit the mic, stating with a grin, “So hey, we are going to take a short break and we will be back in just a few minutes with some more music for you.” With set one wrapped up and full of so many colorful and spirited moments, the crowd once again found themselves at half time full, smiling, and ready for more.
Set two popped off with the metaphorical nod to the Sunday dynamic with everyone’s favorite man of the cloth, “St. Stephen”. The first eight minutes of this was a guitar firework display, notes sent skyward, bursting so frequently it was difficult to discern all that was going on at the same time. Halfway through, the band shifted as Molo pushed the tempo and Rick and Grahame hit the crowd with stringed barrages, while Phil laid out a driving line that everyone else swerved around. The amicable chaos finally broke and with new wings spread, The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” took flight. Another obvious toast to The Croz, this one dripped, morphed, and tattered. Performed in the past by Phil with other friends and with Further, this hit of yesteryear had not shown up in his setlists since 2014. Phil’s bass line plowed through the middle of this version, energetic and on rapid fire. After five minutes of the bust out, the music turned the band back to the ending of “St. Stephen”, the familiar structure receiving a grand applause following some impressive musical agility.
Reaching a definitive stop, but not long enough to get a breath, the band furthered on with “Scarlet Begonias”. Rick rendered the reading well with the crowd singing right along. With guitar blossoms blooming and that feel good calypso vibe, this long-time favorite paid off once again. The end packed a lot of punch, the horns adding different bells and whistles, some appearing to be conjured on the spot as the trio huddled rather than consulting the charts before them.
Devoid of transition from the preceding floral arrangement, “Eyes of the World” was born out of another dead stop followed by some ambient tuning before being met with an excited welcome from the audience. James not only gave the words the silky-smooth soul treatment, but also certainly filled the void for those who couldn’t attend March 29, 1990. For those in attendance who weren’t alive at that time, this would be the night that James Casey delivered on the alto sax, a night to remember. Jason tickled the eighty-eight and ran his spider fingers from one end to the other. His solo was extensive and pronounced and his bandmates were happy to sit back and let him take the spotlight.
Under the guidance of a final violin fill by the piano man, the ocular perspective settled nicely into the cloudy comfort and mist of “Stella Blue”. Jen once again throttled the vocals with soul and guttural emphasis, moving even the most stoic of audience members to emotion. This one really put the focus on the control and dynamic range of this talented voice. Swinging from soft and light to convicted and conflicted, Jen only made every single one of us asking for more. Even Phil was drinking from her overflowing cup, smiling and dotting her emotion with the occasional low end, sonic rumble that just accentuated what everyone was already feeling. Even writing these words, script doesn’t do what happened in this version any justice at all. This rendition is a must listen, to be enjoyed through headphones, a once in a lifetime moment of perfection. Even the guitar and violin duel in the middle is something not to be missed.
“Let It Grow” was the next selection and had Rick leading the rhythm, chopping out the timing while Grahame flourished over the top. Grahame directed the vocals with compliment from the horn section once again. Molo danced along the cymbal bells while Phil added the umph to the accents. The horn builds definitely complete this tune. This version was fourteen minutes of bliss and lifted with some great, vertigo-inducing improvisation.
From the fertile earth, the familiar phrasing of “Terrapin Station” materialized, Rick’s gentle telling manifesting the tale delicately and deliberate. At the first pass of the instrumental, Grahame’s and Rick’s guitars sang out in unison, note for note, achieving thrust and elevation, spiraling around one another. Philled with thunder and lightning, this colossus rumbled and built into the expected towering edifice, solid and steadfast, closing out the set, leaving the perfect destination point fresh in the Heads of those who had made the trip.
Like Saturday, Phil returned to the stage alone to an exuberant audience, doing their best to thank him for his unending journey and all that he brings, both past and present, to the lives of the devout listener. Beaming, he stood there, unhurried, taking it all in. Finally, the man spoke:
Hello, hello. Thank you all for your enthusiasm here. I mean this has been one of the warmest welcomes that I can remember anywhere in the country. Thank you. You guys kill it and are right there with us. It really is a wonderful thing to see.
This recognition lifted the roof and the appreciation was greatly reciprocated back to the man in charge. With a quick organ donor reminder, Phil got to introducing the band. As this was the last opportunity the grateful had to thank the band for a great weekend, with each call of the roll, a huge burst of appreciation for each member visibly moved the namesake.
Saying goodbye one last time to both the audience and to David Crosby, Grahame took up the acoustic and started Crosby’s “Music Is Love”, another first for Phil and the band. The simple title phrase got everyone out in front of the stage joining in. The drone of the music alongside the reverberating proclamation put the room into a group meditation, the individual fading to the background as the tribe became fully embodied. Although some might have expected the night to come to an end on a higher note, the message not only fit, but put everyone in a contemplative, shared dream state that spawned more hugs than party, recentered to the aspect that roots us all in this collective vision.
Back-to-back nights, 34 songs, a host of new characters, Phil Lesh obviously got the nickname “Reddy Kilowatt” all those years ago for a reason and decades later, it still fits. The man is a wellspring of creativity and the fact that he continues not only to go out and make music, but also changes it up with new talent on the regular, shows that his musical tale is not a choice, but a must. Taking the time to rehearse, teach, and learn with new hearts and faces has its own challenges, but his accurate ability to choose the right souls remains abundantly clear. Add to this that the music is often reconfigured and embellished in new ways, shows that this master loves being the student as well as the leader and loves the challenge of breathing new life into these archaic tales. Hitting the bright age of 83 next month, the Mission Ballroom performances emphasized that this living legend shows no signs of parting ways with the things he loves most. It is easy to see that for him, this life and his contribution is a calling, a need to spread joy and light in a darkened world and continues down this road seemingly more for the community impact than for selfish desire.
Keeping his son close at hand, Grahame Lesh’s abilities continue to impress and his talent is certainly carrying on the good name of Phil. He stands strong and confident as leader and support and is abundantly happy in either role.
Much like Phil, John Molo has aged well and his level of interpretation and unending spirit is demonstrated without falter or misstep. The man goes from sitting behind the kit to towering over it and in these moves, he is right on the beat. His locked in connection is both audible and visual as he has his head on a swivel watching for the stage side changes and queues and meets every one of them at the perfect timing. His jaw is often dropped and his eyes shut, but his smile dawns every unified effort that results from the band’s acrobatic success and is happy to share it with all who have made the moment. It is no wonder why Phil has kept this guy on the roster for decades. Thank you, Mount Saint Molo
Jason Crosby is always the right fit no matter who he plays with and his focus is apparent as his eyes constantly watch the other players on stage from behind the boards. His ears are wide open and knows just how to add the filling that made these two evenings truly delectable.
Rick Mitarotonda is obviously living the dream. From his success with Goose to touring with Trey Anastasio last fall to getting the call play with Phil, this guy’s bucket list gets shorter with every passing moment. His demand is certainly warranted as he continually surprises and mesmerizes with his guitar play. He carries a deep soul of learning and interpretation and the sky's the limit when it comes to his musical future.
Natalie Cressman, with her innocent appearance, is a worldly force and only gets better and fiercer with every outing. Her vocals continue to grow and her bone gets the collective Pavlov’s dog salivating.
Having seen Jennifer Hartswick multiple times in the last two decades, this set of performances left one sockless. She went deep and full and her vocal fury certainly put her trumpet playing at a close second. Her display was so powerful, many are already checking her website to see when they might catch her magic next.
James Casey is the man on a mission and blessed in every way. He is bold and humbled in the same breath and gives everything he has in the moment to those who stop to listen. His boyish grin and blush elicited from every shining moment demonstrates his innocence even more and makes him all the more loveable. He is a fighter and winner and what he left on the stage in those two Denver nights retells the fact that he will not slip from this life easily, determined to share all that he’s got while he’s got it.
So, if you are looking for that Grateful Dead sound and want it as close to the original energy and creativity that the band was renowned for, surrounded by a community that is still listening for the secret and searching for the sound, Phil Lesh and his circle of friends continues the journey and are more than happy to play the soundtrack in the dream we all dreamed one afternoon so long ago.