Review: Phil Lesh and Friends at the 1STBANK Center, 2/16/12 - Night One

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Eric Gruneisen
Phil Lesh and friends last night at 1STBANK Center.

PHIL LESH AND FRIENDS @ 1STBANK CENTER | 2/16/12 - NIGHT ONE
Phil Lesh played the first of a three night stand last night at the 1STBANK Center, bringing with him some extremely talented friends and an energy and enthusiasm in his playing that brought fresh breath to the timeless Grateful Dead catalog. Back in October, when Lesh and Grateful Dead bandmate Bob Weird came through on tour as Furthur, the band lacked energy, and the pace of most songs seemed to drag. As someone mentioned last night: those Red Rocks shows could put you to sleep.

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Eric Gruneisen
Warren Haynes, Jackie Green and Phil Lesh of Phil Lesh and Friends last night at 1STBANK Center. Slide show: Phil Lesh at the 1STBANK Center.
But this is a different band, anchored by jazz fusion guitar master John Scofield and southern rock guitar god Warren Haynes as opposed to Bob Weir's lost guitar playing and the "fake Jerry" sound of John Kadlecik. Furthur Drummer Joe Russo -- a powerhouse behind the kit who consistently sounds like more than one drummer - and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti also joined Lesh this tour.

Any tempo issues with Lesh and Weir's summer outing were immediately put to rest from the start, with Lesh turning to drummer Joe Russo in the intro jam before "Shakedown Street" and signaling for Ruso to pick up the pace. That led into a robust warm up jam soup, heavy on the noodle. The shakedown that followed was slinky and funky, with guitarist Jackie Greene taking over the job of vocals and wah-wah funk guitar.

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Eric Gruneisen
Jackie Greene of Phil Lesh and Friends last night at 1STBANK Center. Slide show: Phil Lesh at the 1STBANK Center.
The band moved into some mellow country territory next with "Dire Wolf", "Tennesse Jed" and "Pride of Cucamonga," but without slowing things down to a honky-tonk drawl. Highlight of the first set was an inspired version of "The Wheel" with Greene taking a seat behind the Hammond organ and filling the tune with whirling B-3 swells. The band opened up a bit on the song, jamming and overlapping each other with long, crying notes, like a pod of whales singing in key for a minute, that led into a beautiful "Standing on the Moon". Greene stayed behind the keys, blasting soulful fills behind Haynes' voice -- itself a mix of Jerry Garcia and a southern gospel blues singer at times.

By setbreak, the crowd was completely filled in from the soundboard forward. When the lights came up, the swell of people released out to the hallways making it possible to move around again. A pair of dads took advantage of the clearing to bring their tie-dyed, texting teenage sons down closer to the rail.

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Eric Gruneisen
Jon Scofield of Phil Lesh and Friends last night at 1STBANK Center. Slide show: Phil Lesh at the 1STBANK Center.
Set two opened with an electrically charged Scarlet Begonias, with Scofield taking the driver's seat on guitar and Greene on the vocals. Alternating between his signature organ-like sound and quirky timing and Garcia-esque frills, the man was mesmerizing to listen to. Lesh noticed as well, cracking ear-to-ear smiles in Scofield's direction several times.

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Eric Gruneisen
Warren Haynes of Phil Lesh and Friends last night at 1STBANK Center. Slide show: Phil Lesh at the 1STBANK Center.
Moving along with only minimal interplay between the two tunes, the band charged right into Fire on the Mountain. This time, Haynes took the lead on both vocals and guitar -- giving the reggae-like tune a bit of North Carolina south with his powerful voice. Haynes has been filling in the lead guitar role for Lesh on and off since the 1990s - sometimes fully taking charge of the show with his brassy, Allman Brothers-esque leads. But like last night showed, he can take a more subtle approach when there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Adding spice here and there and letting other musicians fill in where he's laying back.

The band got more playful through the second set, dipping into a brief but well-played "Cryptical Envelopment" that led into a rocking cover of The Who's "Magic Bus", with Haynes taking the chance to throw in a few Pete Townshend power chord poses as the older crowd sang along with the chorus.

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Eric Gruneisen
Phil Lesh and Friends last night at the 1STBANK Center. Slide show: Phil Lesh at the 1STBANK Center.
Two of the biggest changes since the last time Lesh was in town were to "The Other One" and into "Wharf Rat." Neither was approached differently, but unlike the Red Rocks shows neither were played at turtle-speed. Simply having the two powerful tunes at the right tempo brought them back to life, and then there was the interplay between Lesh and Scofield. Both have a knack at finding the most interesting pocket in groove and phrasing intricate melodies effortlessly and it's special to see the two of them play around in the background while Haynes and Chimenti take what most consider the lead parts in a song like Wharf Rat.

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Eric Gruneisen
Phil Lesh last night at 1STBANK Center. Slide show: Phil Lesh at the 1STBANK Center.
Wrapping up the show was a solid "Help on the Way" that jammed into a hurried "Slipknot" transition before finishing up on the joyful chord progressions of "Franklin's Tower". The crowd in the 1STBANK Center dancing their asses off as Lesh happily thumped out the bassline. Encore was a fitting "Not Fade Away", as if to emphasize the point that Lesh is far from old and in the way and can still hold down the stage with truly some of the best.

For the first night of a run, this was one of the most smoking shows Lesh has played in Colorado in a while. The energy on stage really transfers to the energy in the music of the Grateful Dead. Tonight was just night one, and there's still tickets for Friday and Saturday night.

Page down for the setlist and critic's notebook.

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