By Steve Kobak
Even after bandleader Jerry Garcia’s death, the music never stopped for the Grateful Dead.
Eleven years after Garcia’s passing, surviving members perennially embark on successful tours with side projects that celebrate the music of the Dead. Earlier this month, Deadheads lined the Starlight Theater to catch Ratdog, a group featuring Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Wednesday night, Dead bassist Phil Lesh brings his project Phil and Friends to Starlight.
Lesh, 66, spent a good portion of the past 40 years on the road. For the past seven years, Lesh toured with his Friends, a group featuring a rotating cast of jam-friendly musicians. Previous tours included personnel as diverse as Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson and blues guitarist Warren Haynes. This tour’s line-up includes folk singer Joan Osborne and Larry Campbell, a guitarist who played in Bob Dylan’s band for nine years.
"I look for musicians who can bring a little something extra and a perspective that’s fresh to Grateful Dead music,” said Lesh. “Of course, it all really depends on what people’s schedules are [like].”
The Star recently spoke with Lesh about the road, his legacy and his future projects.
How do you choose the setlist?
You’re not supposed to be able to figure that out. That’s kind of my little secret. Sometimes I want to tell a story. Sometimes I just want to string certain musical ideas together. It varies.
I noticed some of the setlists from this tour have a song called “Shakedown on 9th Street” on them. Is that song different from “Shakedown Street”?
Yeah, it’s a Ryan Adams song.
How did you decide to start playing that?
Well, I’ve been developing a kind of relationship with Ryan over the last year. We played together at the Jammies and kind of struck up a friendship. We actually played some dates together—some in Colorado and some in San Francisco over New Year’s. I’ve been fooling around with him in the recording studio. I really love his songs and his songs really fit so well with the Grateful Dead songs in sequences. I’ve been bringing a lot of Ryan’s songs into the repertoire of my band.
Is there any chance that you’ll revive [David Crosby’s] “Cowboy Song” for this tour?
It depends on who would be singing it. We did that with Chris Robinson [of the Black Crowes] because he’s a great singer and he does that song so well. There is no voice in my band right now that could do that song justice.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
We all get in a big circle and mumble weirdness at one another. Seriously, we have a big group hug.
What does that allow the band to do?
It allows us to put our heads together and exclude the rest of the world. We try to jump start the group phenomenon if we can.
Is there anyone on tour taking on Pigpen songs?
Oh yeah, Joan…it’s amazing she has that same kind of sensibility—that kind of down-to-earth, bluesy sensibility that Pigpen did. It’s kind of like having Pigpen back but with a different gender.
You come from an avant-garde classical background. How did you bring that sensibility to the Grateful Dead?
I just wanted to make sure everything was as weird as possible. In other words, let’s not settle for the easy solution to any musical problem. Let’s stretch this and see if we can make it more interesting.
What do you do on your downtime?
There’s not a lot of downtime on the road. I’m either sleeping, eating or I’m rehearsing for the next show. Days off are spent horizontally, trying to recover some energy.
How do you maintain the stamina it takes to play on a summer tour?
I have a new liver. That helps a lot.
Do you have a diet or anything?
I eat a lot. I eat four meals a day. Everybody else gains weight on the road. I loose weight. I have to stuff the calories down.
I noticed you’re working on an oral history of the Grateful Dead?
Well, no, it’s not an oral history of the Grateful Dead. It’s an oral history of the community and the people who started out by following the Grateful Dead. Forty years down the line, what are the people doing now? I’m also talking to younger people who started to follow me around and asking what drew them to the scene and how they feel about the values of the ‘60s and so on.
Are the rest of the members of the Grateful Dead participating in the film?
No. Not yet. This is just something that I wanted to do because nobody’s doing it. it’s something that needs to be done. We’re starting to lose people. We lost [Ken] Kesey. We lost Bill Graham. We lost a lot of people who had lots to say and I want to get this recorded before we can’t do it anymore.
In the past 40 years, the Grateful Dead gained a dedicated following. What have you found out from making the film about the band’s magnetism?
It really doesn’t have anything to do with a magnetism towards the band because that’s not what I’m asking about. I’m asking about what is your magnetism towards each other. Why do you feel like you’re part of a community because they all do. They all feel like they’re a part of a community and that’s the main reason why they come out to these shows. The music, I really feel, is almost secondary. What really draws people is the chance to be together with other like-minded people
What advice would you give the audience?
Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on ya.
Phil Lesh and Friends play the Starlight Theatre on Wednesday, July 19 at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $42.50 to $49.50 and are available through Ticketmaster. Prior to the show, Lesh will appear at “Lunch with Phil Lesh for Organ Donor Awareness” at 3 p.m. on Wednesday at Starlight Theatre. Tickets to the lunch are $100 and include a ticket to the concert and an invitation to soundcheck. Ticket information is available here.