Phil Lesh, Still Lighting Out and Looking All Around

By BEN RATLIFF/The New York Times
Published October 21, 2000

When somebody begins a solo in Phil Lesh's band, the chances are high that
within four bars a few other musicians will begin to pile on with their own
improvisations. And the tangle of all those single notes isn't a momentary
diversion but the goal. The emphasis isn't on the primacy of the individual
soloist, but on the weave. It can confound somebody who is used to the
principles of jazz, much less the principles of rock, where so much activity
at once is usually understood as clutter.

Mr. Lesh, the bass player who was with the Grateful Dead for three decades,
has spent the last five years or so — through many lineup changes to his
group — restoring the collective volatility that could arise out of the Dead
at its best. On his band's last few tours, he has experimented with adding
jazz musicians to the stage, as the Dead were known to do; on Sunday night at
the Beacon, his guest was the saxophonist Greg Osby.

It was Mr. Osby's second time onstage with Mr. Lesh. (The first was last
spring in Philadelphia.) He joined the band on its fourth song of the night,
the Dead's "Eyes of the World," and at first he was chary. But apart from a
few minutes in "Soulshine," which sounded formulaic — gospelized
rhythm-and-blues, with echoes of the Saturday Night Live band's closing theme
— Mr. Osby stayed onstage for most of the night.

He stuck gamely to his own idiosyncratic style, full of chopped-off phrases,
unexpected rhythmic contours and rapid strings of clear, articulated notes
during slow tempos.

The two sets, each two hours long, included some straightforward rock songs —
like rearranged versions of the Beatles' "She Said She Said" and the
Youngbloods' "Get Together." But a good deal of the material was midtempo and
easy to take apart into nebulous, improvisatory zones.

Aside from a few short bursts of enthusiastic free-form playing, with no
tonal or rhythmic center, the collective soloing was rooted in vamps and
modes; the music never became a mess, and the trio of Mr. Lesh on bass and
Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring on guitars — the nerve center of the band —
kept their dynamic balance, watching for lulls in one another's statements to
jump in.

Mr. Osby eased himself in slowly. The band can do a lot of different things,
and as he was coming to them fairly fresh — there was not much indication he
was familiar with the material — it was interesting to see which he was best
suited to. Despite his early background in rhythm-and- blues bands, he did
not let himself go into King Curtis-style obbligatos in a good-time shuffle
like "U.S. Blues"; he remained more in the role of judicious, self-protective
artist than enthusiastic participant.

The Dead's ballad "Morning Dew" worked well; though played attentively, the
John Coltrane minor key blues "Blue Train" didn't really go anywhere; and in
looser jamming sequences Mr. Osby had strong, self- assured moments. Toward
the end of the show he was no longer playing tentatively, and in "Shakedown
Street" he managed to play lines with such commanding rhythmic suggestions
that he took the lead in shaping the music. Mr. Lesh and the drummer John
Molo were turning the beat around, mirroring his moves, and the guitarists
began to build off his melodic suggestions.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company