[note from Geoff: Doug has contributed before here (Mickey interview) and offered us this article which was recently published for a Hong Kong based adventure lifestyle magazine. He cautioned me that he was worried that people might not like his less-than-glowing review of the Phil and Friends live show. I believe Deadheads are open-minded, usually, and not afraid to disagree with each other. If you disagree with Doug, tell him so. If you would like to offer up an alternative review, and I feel it's well-written, send it to me, and we'll publish it here.]
There and back again: sometimes less is more.
by Doug Heselgrave
At the risk of committing musical heresy, I'm going to speak my mind here. After spending the last few days listening to a stack of live CDs, I have to say that the much touted Phil Lesh and Friends just aren't as good as everyone says they are... or everyone wants them to be. That's not to say that Lesh, at the age of sixty-two, isn't still one of the hottest bass players around, or that I don't admire him for playing his heart out far past the time when anyone expected him to. And, I certainly can't find any technical fault with any of the excellent musicians that he's assembled in his current band's lineup. John Molo is a rock solid drummer who intuitively follows Lesh through some adventurous territory; Rob Barracco is a monster on the keyboards, frequently turning melody lines upside down then righting them again on the turn of a dime. Both guitarists, Jimmy Herring and Warren Hayes play some incredible solos and come up with new twists on some of Jerry Garcia's patented runs.
So, what's wrong? People love this band and write effusively about how it's Lesh who's holding the torch of the Grateful Dead's legacy. People love him. For many of his fans, he can do no wrong. Who am I to disagree? Well, I loved the Dead, but I accepted their passing. I don't expect any of the surviving players to play like it's 1968, and I don't want to hear the guitarists sound like Jerry Garcia. I think that I approach Lesh's music with an open mind, and a willingness to meet the band more than halfway. After all the hype, I wanted to and expected to love this band. But, as much as I admire them, their talent and their professed mission to expand and explore new musical horizons, I often find their music exhausting. For all of the dexterity of the musicians, the music has a claustrophobic lumbering quality. There is no room to breathe in much of it. Garcia's gift to the Dead, aside from his incredible fluidity on the electric guitar, was his innate sense of melody and love of a good tune. No matter how far he got into "space" on a jam, it was always musical, and eventually segued into something that you could hum to.
I open myself up to all kinds of attacks with this last statement. I realize that. Call me a musical conservative. I'm not. There seems to be a reluctance in the Grateful Dead camp to be critical of Lesh's music. He is not simply an icon; he is a living breathing musician, and it doesn't do him, or anyone else, any favours to take a "hands off, he's earned our praise" approach to his current output. What I do hear when I listen to Phil and Friends is a band with an incredible amount of skill and a deep love of the music, but sometimes I find they overplay. More notes are not always better. Sometimes I am reminded of the early days of John McLauglin's Mahavishnu Orchestra where the musicians played full bore all the time, leaving no room for the silence between notes that allows music to resonate.
Often Lesh's band appears to be showing the audience how clever they are by pushing too hard and arriving nowhere. There seems to be a struggle in Lesh's renditions of Dead Classics to simply reinvent them, throwing the baby out with the bath water, rather than letting the inherent spirit of a song carry the musicians through.
As I said before, I admire Lesh and have no trouble in admitting that his playing is wonderful. But, there's something at the center of the music that sounds like he's playing with a chip on his shoulder, playing to show us that he can still do it. To his credit, he is playing a lot of original material that will be showcased on a new CD "There and Back Again" to be released in May, and when he plays old Dead tunes, he revisits songs that the band hadn't played for many years. Songs such as "Mason's Children" and "Viola Lee Blues" have benefited greatly from their reinvention, but there is something, almost intangible, that is strained in the delivery of the music. By comparison his old partners' new bands, Bob Weir's Ratdog and Mickey Hart's Bembe Orisha, neither of which have players of the same caliber, seem to have a lot more fun. Seeing Grateful Dead concerts, I would often groan when Weir played a Chuck Berry tune or pulled out an old cowboy song, but I see now how his input helped round out the Dead's music. Phil Lesh's band doesn't really crack any musical smiles. Lesh's band isn't afraid to improvise, and I'd go as far as to suggest they do too much of it and that some of their jams sound pretty aimless. Often Phil and Friends come off seeming accomplished rather than fresh or engaging. There are moments of breathtaking beauty in every song that I've listened to Lesh's band play, but the effect is often diminished by beating musical themes until the listener is numb, or simply by not knowing when to end a song. I'm not suggesting resorting to three minute pop ditties, but a painter has to know when to put his brush down.
As I've said, Lesh's band is extremely dexterous, and they play with a suppleness that is rarely heard in popular music, but for all of this adventurousness, there is little that is new or interesting to my ears. When I listen to earlier incarnations of Phil and Friends, especially circa.1999 when he was playing with Trey Anastasio, there is a lot more to enjoy in the music. The sound is less cluttered and the musicians regularly stepped outside of a song's melody or theme without sounding ponderous, without losing the sense of whimsy in the piece they are playing. There is something uncomfortably academic, to my ears, when I listen to some of the new band's performances. All of the pieces seem to follow a similar pattern of deconstruction and reinterpretation that , while interesting, becomes tired fairly quickly. Typically, in a song, a theme is introduced, explored, and turned upside down with great finesse before turning to the next movement. While I often find myself marveling at the skill and command of musical language, I invariably feel trapped by the dryness of the expression within it. All of the musicians are masters of a certain idiom, but seem content to explore and flex their muscles within it rather than truly stretching out into new territory. It is not enough for the musicians to simply reinterpret in a clever way to show how fit their chops are. If they really want to explore something new, not just express old patterns in a different order, faster and without miscue, some rethinking is necessary. At times listening to Phil and Friends, I feel like I'm sitting in on a Master's music class rather than listening to an evolving band trying to find their own unique sound.
Comparing Lesh to fellow sixty something musician, Bob Dylan, elucidates some of the problems with his approach. Like Lesh, Dylan is faced with playing a catalogue that has admittedly been done to death. Dylan and Lesh have each played all of their songs hundreds, if not thousands, of times and trying to keep them fresh and vital must certainly be a challenge. From touring with the Dead in the 80's, Dylan appears to have learned to vary his sets from night to night, throwing in musical surprises and attempting obscure songs that he hasn't played for years. His treatment of tunes is loose and supple, and he is playing better than he ever has played before. Lesh may be adept at solving complicated mathematical equations in the music he plays, but he often misses the emotional heart of a song. Contrastingly, Dylan sounds like he is digging into the truths of his songs like he never has before. The pain and resignation of "One too many mornings" as Dylan sings it now is even more deeply felt and communicated than it was when first sung forty years ago. At the heart of this success is a musical simplicity, not the simplicity of popular radio, but the simplicity of confidence in the notes played and sung. A single gesture in a song becomes like a Zen koan pointing to emotional and personal truths behind the song. Dylan assumes that his audience "gets it" and this is why his music is working so well these days. Lesh, by comparison, doesn't leave anything to chance. Perhaps oversensitive to the criticism of the Dead's lack of musical adventurousness in their last days, he has pulled out all the stops and jams full bore on every tune. Both guitarists, Herring and Hayes, have played with the Allman Brothers and their blistering pull out all the stops playing embraces the Southern jammers ethos at the expense of subtlety. Jams that could be two minutes long stretch out to seven and eight minutes and the initial power and inventiveness becomes overbearing.
Lesh has said that he believes the new "jam bands" are producing the only interesting music being performed today. In many ways, I agree with him, and I respect that at age sixty-two, he is playing for time and the road won't go on forever. Maybe he feels that his musical legacy is at stake and that he's not ready to retire or slow down before his place in history is assured. Given the corporate nature of the music industry, it's hard to blame him. In a world of Britney Spears and boy bands, Lesh is a dinosaur. A relic from a different time. And, I admire him and what he's doing a hell of a lot. And, yes, after all I've just written, if his band was playing anywhere within driving distance I'd go and hear them. I'd buy a ticket because somewhere in all the cluttered notes and dead end solos I know a space would open up, if only for a brief moment, and music of an inventiveness and beauty seldom heard anywhere today would evolve unrehearsed and undiscovered in real time right before the audiences' eyes and ears. That moment of perfect clarity in communication between performer and audience is what music is all about, and if I've found fault with Phil Lesh and Friends it's because they've set their own standards so high that they've set up an almost impossible task reaching them night after night out on the road. The kind of risks they take will always invite criticism. I'm not always going to like what they do, but bless them for trying. My ears are open and waiting