At age 77, there's little that Phil Lesh needs to prove. And that's the genius of the Grateful Dead bassist, he doesn't fall comfortably into any narrative. His very appeal lies in his ability to march to his own beat (bass lines?).
So rather than try to recount the entirety of his unexpected Chicago run, I'm gonna lay out some thoughts in bullet points, to accompany Nunu's brilliant photos and video, as well as Jeff Frank's audio recording.
In the post-Jerry years, there have been Bobby people and Phil people. While Weir has certainly won the popular vote, Lesh has taken my personal Electoral College. Something about his attitude towards making this music -- not as the guy who's out front singing the songs or playing a traditional lead instrument -- that conveys the spirit of the Grateful Dead. I dig Deadheads that can appreciate this.
I can't help but wondering... why did Phil decide to do this mini-run of shows? He seemed to have things performance all worked out between Terrapin Crossroads and the Shapiro triangle (Brooklyn Bowls, Capitol Theatre & Lockn' Festival). Did he just get the itch that bad? Or is it something about this band, The Terrapin Family Band, that demanded a proper road showcase? While not the super-team of bad-asses of a typical Phil & Friends lineup, there appears to be a level of cohesion here that warrants something.
And of course, there were the ringers. First and foremost Karl Denson, who nearly stole the show. Playing long, melodic lines on both saxaphone and flute and lending an undeniable jazzy flair, his presence provided for that legit jamband lead instrument that can simply float above the ruckus and create peak moments.
Then, there was Eric Krasno, whose ever-sharpening Dead skills were played to great effect as a foil for Ross James' leads. Certainly brought another dimension to the jammier material to what that more rootsy Terrapin Family Band can offer. These guys helped make the transition from the band that plays at the "local bar" to the one that could captivate a theater on the road.
And at the heart of it all, this is still PHIL's show. A graceful, stoic bandleader who wants to spotlight the best of what his band has to offer, His bass a foundation unlike any other, as each of the band's other voices dance around and complement the underpinning melody. If Terrapin Family Band's sound is steeped in Americana and celebration of the Hunter-Garcia songcraft (and others in that vein), Phil's joyful, exploratory contribution is what allows it to achieve orbit.
Example: Thursday's choice of Tom Petty's "Apartment Song" was a way cool, deeper-cut nod to the recently departed songwriting, but Phil's leadership certainly played a role in it's arrangement and impeccable transition into the first set closing "Sugar Magnolia". This was excellent jambanding.
Despite a "covers heavy" run, this felt like real band with a real repertoire. Yes, they lean heavily on the Dead -- we'd probably grumble if they didn't. But they also touched on a few original tunes (the debut of "Lay Down Sailor", Ross James' "West"), some cuts from one of Denson's other (*ahem*) projects ("Monkey Man", "Tumbling Dice"), other classics ("Sultans Of Swing", "Ohio"), and GD exotica ("Jack Of Roses", some JGB material). There were plenty of the huge, crowd-pleasing, jammy numbers as well.
And let's face it, for a band with an eldery leader, they didn't skimp at all. Both shows spanned nearly four hours from first note of the evening to the last night of the encore. I thought a quickie "Box Of Rain" would close out Thursday's show, but the squeezed a lengthy "Wharf Rat" righ in the middle of it.
Phil gets a lot of shit for his vocals, but the TFB had some interesting vocal turns in addition to his warbly leads. Grahame Lesh's contribution was felt in his leads, and he has an uncanny way of evoking his father even as he stands literally in his shadow. He adopts his phrasing, with a sweeter sound. Other times I had to glance around to find out who had that big emotional voice during Jerry tunes -- drummer Alex Koford surprisingly handled these well while still manning the kit.
Finally, a big thanks to Phil, the band and all the Deadheads who made it out on a Wednesday & Thursday night. Terrapin Family Band was somewhat of a wild card, and certainly doesn't get the same attention as other Dead-related projects, but with Lesh and the helm, it can churn out an experience that can surpass nearly any of them.