MONTCLAIR, NJ—In a small parking lot adjacent to the Wellmont Theatre, a microcosm of Deadheads bustled despite the cold weather. Friends mingled and perused the usual lot merchandise—tie-dye everything, pipes, jewelry—put on display by people who spontaneously set up shop on blankets and tables. Fans wandered around in search of tickets for the evening’s sold-out show. Grateful Dead tunes blared from a huge stereo encased in a large, wheeled box, upon which the word “GRATEPHIL” was scrawled in large letters. Indeed, Phil Lesh And Friends were in town for the last show of a three-night run at the Wellmont.
It had been a while since the East Coast saw the former Grateful Dead bassist with his ever-changing lineup of Friends: Lesh has been busy touring with Furthur for the past three years, and he opened his own concert venue, Terrapin Crossroads, in California this March. On this particular evening, Lesh’s Friends included singer/guitarist John Kadlecik, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, drummer Joe Russo—all members of Furthur—and singer/guitarist Jackie Greene. The lineup was essentially Furthur minus Bob Weir. One might wonder why Lesh didn’t seek a departure from his steady touring partners for this run of shows, but the event revealed just how drastically one new musician (and a surprise guest) can change a band’s dynamic.
The first set opened with “Jack Straw.” Kadlecik, Lesh, and Greene took turns singing the verses, which resulted in a fun alternate-universe take on the song: Kadlecik’s singing and guitar playing famously sounds just like Jerry Garcia’s, and Greene’s vocals sounded noticeably like Weir’s. Kadlecik and his inner Garcia both came out to play during the next song, “Loser.” He maintained the song’s haunting essence while using a loud, hard-rocking tone in his extended guitar solo.
Jackie Greene took the lead on the third song, singing “Mama Tried” in a full-on cowboy voice. As the show went on, it became clear that Greene was the most dominating musician in the otherwise mellow band. He sang forcefully and played frenetically, shredding non-stop and rarely staying still. Lesh, Kadlecik, and the rest of the band were quite the opposite: they stayed planted firmly in place, delivering their talents with Zen calmness. Greene infused the music with a harder edge than it typically possesses. This felt slightly abrasive at times, but his power worked well in other songs, like when he led the band in a fantastic cover of the Who’s “Magic Bus” (and whipped out a harmonica, too).
Towards the end of the first set, a guest appeared on stage: a fiddle player named Jason Crosby. Crosby’s playing was one of the most interesting parts of the show. He added a whimsical sound to “Crazy Fingers,” especially when he played along with Chimenti’s piano solos; he transformed the song into something that conjured visions of a romp through a magical forest. The fiddle also gave a major kick of energy to “Bertha,” and a deeply moving sound to “The Wheel.” Crosby remained on stage for most of the second set, much to the crowd’s delight.
“Uncle John’s Band” brought the entire band together seamlessly; it prominently featured Lesh’s vocals as his Friends harmonized behind him. The song shifted midway through into an up-tempo jam that had a little bit of everything: piano, bass, fiddle, guitar, drums, Jackie Greene on the organ. The band ended the second set with “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On The Mountain,” to which the crowd loudly sang along.
Whereas Furthur is a post-Garcia iteration of the Dead that sticks closer to the sound of the original band, Phil & Friends have always sought to bring new sounds and voices to Grateful Dead songs. They succeeded musically, infusing new life into the classics, but also roused the audience on an emotional level. The crowd stood from the very first note through “Love Light,” the encore; not a single person stayed seated during either set. Many fans left their seats to dance in the aisles and walkways, filling every inch of free space in the venue to revel in the beloved, decades-old musical spirit Phil Lesh helped create.