Former Dead bassist Phil Lesh is having the time of his life making new music
Ask Phil Lesh if he misses the Grateful Dead, the legendary San Francisco-based band he co-founded in 1965 with the late Jerry Garcia, and he’s careful to put his answer in the proper context.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “I miss Jerry a whole lot. And if he was alive I’d still be playing with him. But maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe all of this would have happened anyway. You never know. But I don’t miss the rest of it. I miss making music with Jerry, but the rest of it, I’m a lot more satisfied and fulfilled now with this band than I was with the Grateful Dead.”
As Lesh’s comment indicates, a main reason that Lesh has little need to look back on the Grateful Dead is that, with the current version of his own band, Phil Lesh and Friends, he believes he has found a group that is as good and exciting as the Dead were at their musical peak in the mid 1970s.
“This band has no fear. I really don’t want to compare except to say that this band, in a way, it’s what I’ve been searching for in my whole musical life,” Lesh said. “Quite honestly, material that I wrote years ago and I tried out with the Grateful Dead and it was unsuccessful, all of that same material sounds like classic works of genius now. So the willingness of this band to really buckle down and work out difficult arrangements and then open the darn thing wide open and actually blow the doors off of them is something that I just feel very fortunate [to experience].”
The current edition of Phil Lesh and Friends includes Lesh on bass, guitarist Warren Haynes (whose résumé includes a long stint with the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule), guitarist Jimmy Herring (the Allman Brothers Band and Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit), drummer John Molo (Bruce Hornsby and the Range) and keyboardist Rob Barraco (Zen Tricksters).
For Lesh, his life turned around in 1998, when he received a liver transplant. By that time, a case of hepatitis C Lesh had contracted some 30 years earlier had finally caused his liver to deteriorate to the point where a transplant was the only alternative. Four months after the transplant, Lesh, 61, was touring with an early version of his Friends group—and with a whole new outlook on life.
“Every breath is a gift. Every day is a whole lifetime,” Lesh said, describing how his ordeal changed his perspective. “You really have to concentrate on what’s important. I find that my tolerance for B.S. has diminished to almost zero. Of course, there are physical limitations as well.
“Since I still have hepatitis C, it’s really important to avoid stress. So it’s made me live at a different tempo.”
The wide-ranging repertoire of Phil Lesh and Friends includes a healthy selection of Grateful Dead songs reinterpreted in the band’s own style, a few select cover tunes and some original material, including several tunes Lesh has written recently with Robert Hunter, the lyricist of many of the Grateful Dead’s songs.
Lesh is particularly excited about the new material and knows fans will be curious about his collaborations with Hunter. Ironically, Lesh said he had been concentrating on writing his own lyrics, but then he wrote a song that seemed to demand Hunter’s lyrical touch.
“He hadn’t been doing a lot of songwriting in our scene,” Lesh said. “He had been working in Nashville for a little while. He had just sort of been semi-retired, I guess you might say. I called him, and I said, ‘Bob, you know, I’ve written this thing and it said to me I’m a Robert Hunter song, and I’d really like to come and play it for you.’ He said ‘Hey, come on over.’ And I had two others that I had written at the same time and I just decided to play them for him, too, and he ended up writing lyrics to all three of them. I think they’re some of the best things I’ve ever done and I think some of the best collaborations we’ve had, that Bob’s done since Jerry died. So I’m very pleased with the way that’s turned out.”
Lesh has also made connections with another key figure from the Grateful Dead days, guitarist Bob Weir, who currently fronts his own band, Ratdog.
Ratdog is joining Lesh on a few Midwest and East Coast dates this summer. It’s a significant event, considering Lesh had a falling out with Weir and former Dead percussionist Mickey Hart over plans to license Grateful Dead concert recordings and other products.
“It’s kind of cool that Bob’s band is able to come join us for a few gigs on this tour, for many reasons, not the least of which is to take our relationship away from the business disagreements that we have and put it on the level that it started on, making music," Lesh said. "I mean, if our bands had been playing on the same show together and we hadn’t actually played music together, it would have been weird. So with that in mind, we agreed that we were probably going to do a couple of songs together. Each night, Bob is going to sit in with my band, and to that end we just did some rehearsal. Bob came in and ran my band through some of his songs. And then we did a little stealth gig at a place in Mill Valley where Bob lives called the Sweetwater. We called ourselves the Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band. We played three hours of music there, and it was really fun."