New Lesh Interview
- From: Olompali4 <olompali4@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Mon, 6 Apr 2009 12:00:18 -0700 (PDT)
On the Road Again: Rockin’ for the Faithful (And Good Causes), A Few
Minutes with Phil Lesh
By Blair Jackson
On the day I catch up with Phil Lesh for a few final pre-tour thoughts—
Sunday, April 5—he’s about to go into yet another rehearsal for The
Dead’s April-May tour. The sextet has logged some serious practice
time this winter-spring, with the most recent band get-togethers
occurring in public in New York City: On March 30, The Dead (or
members thereof) made four appearances over the course of one very
long day, performing one song on the popular morning TV chat-fest The
View, then staging three free concerts in three different venues—an
acoustic shindig (featuring Phil, Bob and Warren) at a place called
Angel Orensanz, and then electric sets at the tiny Gramercy Theatre
and the 3,000-capacity Roseland Ballroom. More than 4,000 lucky fans
earned their right to go to one of the shows via an online lottery.
Phil and I chatted a bit about that, and also about one of the cooler
aspects of the Dead tour: The fact that at every stop on the tour, a
selection of some of the best seats at each venue—ranging from 24
seats (in Greensboro) to about 100 (for Madison Square Garden)—are
being sold through an online auction to raise funds mostly for the
various philanthropic organizations The Dead are connected to—yet
another example of The Dead giving back to the community, as they have
since their founding. For more info on Charity Folks—the online group
hosting the auction—and to actually place bids on premium show ducats
(bidding stops about a week before each show), click here.
* * * * * * *
Have I caught you in mid-rehearsals?
Actually, this is our last day.
What happens at the end of rehearsals?
We play our little hearts out until we drop exhausted on the floor,
then we give each other a big hug and say, “See ya on the road!”
Is there a natural evolution that occurs over the course of
Well, we sort of imposed one this time. The first two weeks we went
over a whole bunch of songs, and this last five days we’ve just been
playing, doing a lot of jamming and trying to lock it down. And, of
course, we did those three shows in New York which I thought were very
well-performed and well-received. It gave all of us a bunch of new
confidence. So now we can open ourselves up to that magic and feel
like we know what we’re doing. Those shows were a lot of fun.
Tell me about that day.
Well, we decided we wanted to do some free shows for the New York
audience, so we put these things together just a few days before. We
did The View in the morning—Warren, Bob and I—and that was fine. It
was a normal TV show. They’re very nice people. I’ve seen Whoopi at
our shows, and she knows Mickey; she’s a long-time pal. She was really
stoked that we were there.
Is it hard to get used to cutting your songs down for TV? Last year
you did the super-abbreviated “Sugaree” with your band [on Conan
O’Brien’s show] and here you had the “Friend of the Devil,” which at
least had all the verses…
[Laughs] Yeah, well, that’s TV. Musicians are the poor relations of TV
variety shows. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why they always
go on last and you have to cut your song down to three minutes and 30
seconds. I would rather have played long and talked less, but that’s
my personal thing. Like I said, they were very nice and it was really
a good experience.
I’d never heard of the first venue you played that day, Angel
It’s an old synagogue, if I’m not mistaken, and it’s been turned into
an arts center and it’s an amazing place. It looks sort of like an old
medieval town hall, with a balcony around three sides of it and all
kinds of great old decorations, and it sound sounds really nice in
there, too. For acoustic we were able to play so quiet that we could
do all the acoustic dynamics that the instruments will allow and get
it across to the audience.
Do you plan on playing acoustic music with some regularity on this
We’re going to see what we can do. We set up yesterday to rehearse
with the gear and the physical setup. It’s not going to be every show
More hit or miss, like it was with your band…
Right, it will be selected shows, I suppose.
Then it was on to the Gramercy Theatre…
Right, which I’d never been to before. I think it holds around 600
people; a great little place. That was really cool because I didn’t
have to use ear monitors. I could listen with open ears and use wedges
for monitors, which I can’t usually do in larger places. That second
show was about an hour.
How much time did you have between the three gigs?
We had two hours between them, so that allowed whatever gear needed to
be moved to get where it had to go and be set up.
Did you have different audiences each place or were there people who
were chasing you around town going to every show?
Well, as far as I know it was set up so nobody got to come to more
than one. The idea was to allow as many people to get in for free and
see the band as possible.
So did the equipment at Roseland come over from the Gramercy, or did
you have enough to set up in both places independently?
I don’t really know for sure. There was some stuff that had to come
over, but not a lot. The Roseland show was really great, I thought. We
ended up playing a little over two hours there. We couldn’t stop
It’s a great place. Had you played there in any capacity before?
Yeah, I played there in the ’90s with Warren for an Allen Woody
tribute concert. The Allman Brothers showed up at that one, and Berry
Oakley, Jr. was there, and Phil Lesh & Friends played. I enjoyed
Roseland even more this time because it was our gig, of course. We
could really work the place.
And you also played with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon while you
were in New York…
[Laughs] What a trip, you know? It was an honor for us to have them
invite us to play the last show of their 40th anniversary run.
Obviously we go way back with those guys.
Let’s talk about The Dead’s involvement with Charity Folks. I was not
familiar with them previously, but I see they do work with a lot of
great groups, from the ACLU, to Sanctuary for Families, to the
Alzheimers Association, to the T.J. Martell Foundation…
That’s one of the reasons we chose them. I haven’t been that involved
in the nuts-and-bolts negotiations about this, but I’ve heard a lot of
good things about them. And this seemed like a good opportunity: The
band gets to hold out some of the best seats for every show—in a lot
of cases the very front rows—and we wanted to make these tickets
available for people to bid on with the money going to charity. We’re
going to benefit the Rex Foundation, the Further Foundation, which is
Bob’s foundation, and Unbroken Chain, which is Jill’s and my
foundation. There are also a couple of other non-profits involved who
will benefit as well. It’s really a continuation of what we’ve been
doing for the last 40 years: first by playing for free, then doing
benefits, and then with our foundations. Those foundations will, of
course, pass that money on to worthy institutions and non-profits.
It seems like in the early days you guys played almost as many
benefits as paying gigs…
[Laughs] It does seem like that. It wasn’t just us, either, of course.
All the San Francisco bands played a lot of benefits. As we started
touring nationally and working more, it became a problem because we
couldn’t do all the benefits we were asked, and of course we usually
wanted to do them. Eventually, it got really hard to fit it in with
our schedules, so that’s one of the main reason we started the Rex
Foundation [in the early ’80s].
It must give this tour a slightly special feel to know that every
show, in effect, becomes a benefit of sorts, since part of the
proceeds of every show will go to charity…
That’s right. It’s always a good thing to be able to give back.
Why do you think this tour has generated so much excitement? It
definitely feels like a much bigger deal than the one in 2004? The
tickets have sold faster, it’s getting a lot of publicity…
You know, I can’t really put my finger on it. I agree, though, there
seems to be a lot of excitement about this tour. I guess what it’s
really about is us playing together again. Maybe it’s “absence makes
the heart grow fonder.”
I’ve been feeling a groundswell of desire out there for us to play
together again. What really jump-started it was doing those shows for
Obama. My son Brian said before the California primary, “Dad, you’ve
gotta get The Dead for a benefit because it will be so much more
powerful and so much more important.” So I called Bobby and he was
immediately down with it. Mickey was down. Billy couldn’t make it
because he was in Hawaii and it was all put together really quickly.
And that was successful musically—it was absolutely wonderful from our
perspective. It was such a gas to play again with Bobby. You forget
how wide-ranging these guys are in what they play and in how they
think. So that was great, and then it was totally a no-brainer when
the [Obama] campaign asked us to do the big show at Penn State. And
that went so well, that’s when we essentially decided, “Let’s go play
some music together.”
The people want us to play music together. They want us to come out
and play the Grateful Dead classics, so that’s what we’re going to do.
I would think that by this point, between being in your band and
playing on that previous Dead tour, it must be pretty instinctual
playing with Warren, too.
Warren is such a consummate professional and he fits in so beautifully
now. It was harder for him, I know, back in ’04, when he was there
with Jimmy [Herring] also, and there were two of them playing, plus
Bob. It was difficult to know exactly what to do when. But this time
he’s really a part of the band, as is [keyboardist] Jeff Chimenti, who
has all that history with Bob and with The Dead.
Are there any plans to go on the road after the July 4th Rothbury
Festival show, which is being billed as the only Dead show of the
I can say without fear of contradiction that we have not made any
Have you made any plans for your own band?
No, I haven’t. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing for the
rest of the year.
Well, I hope you go out again. I love that band.
So do I. And I love to do it, so it’s not like it won’t happen. I just
don’t know when.
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