Phil Lesh and Friends Captivate the Capitol Theatre

July 24th, 2013

Phil Lesh and Friends – the Capitol Theatre – July 23, 2013

Phil Lesh and Friends makes it sound so benign, like a group of toddlers on a play date. Phil Lesh and Conspirators might better describe the guerrilla warfare that Lesh & Co. inflicted on the Grateful Dead canon in the second of two sold-out shows last night at the Capitol Theatre. For 15 years, Lesh has played off and on in this format with a rotating cast of jam-worthy musicians, and the current incarnation features John Scofield and John Kadlecik on guitars, John Medeski on keys and Joe Russo on drums. It’s a classic Lesh band: it might make you wonder how the pieces are going to fit, but when the music starts, you appreciate how everyone brings a vital piece to the group. The song-oriented first set provided plenty of opportunities for the packed house of Deadheads to sing along. The set closed with a “Box of Rain,” which took the touching ballad to all sorts of interesting places, Medeski charging ahead on organ and Scofield cascading down while Kadlecik raced to crescendo.

Of course, every Dead fan knows it’s all about the second set, and last night’s was no exception, with top-notch song selection, lengthy full-band improvisations in unlikely places and surprise segue pairings. The band opened with “Here Comes Sunshine,” which found each member playing in constant, relentless jamming, Scofield looking one pointy hat short of a full-fledged wizard as he led the way through more than 20 minutes of major-key majesty. The second set was largely triangular, rotating threesomes locking into themes both acute and obtuse before the rest of the quintet found their way in. The “Sunshine” outro jam found Russo, Lesh and Medeski kicking into a funkier, up-tempo jam, Russo finally exploding into a superlative arena-rock drum lesson that finally settled with the whole band into the classic “Uncle John’s Band” riff. Longtime fan-favorite “St. Stephen” featured a rollicking Kadlecik-led jam with Lesh and Russo providing backup and eventually devolved into a noise thing, equally free-form and funky.

For me, the set’s highlight was “Mountains of the Moon,” a soothing psychedelic ballad that unleashed multiple viral forays, notes multiplying exponentially with everyone fully locked into the ever-changing melodies until Lesh impossibly reined in everyone for another verse before repeating the process all over again, while moonscapes were projected onto the Capitol’s walls and ceiling. This perfectly transitioned into “Fire on the Mountain,” with huge solos from Scofield and Medeski. The set finished with a pair of cover tunes that the Dead made their own, a stunningly gorgeous “Morning Dew” followed by a straightforward, rollicking “I Know You Rider.” It took Phil and his Friends all of seven songs to traverse 80-plus minutes of time, deftly maneuvering through themes and melodies all the while, reconstructing and rediscovering the Grateful Dead catalog as only Lesh can. With a swinging-Russo-beat encore of “They Love Each Other,” the show came to an end: mission accomplished for the conspirators and their fearless leader. —A. Stein