Papa Phil Lesh turned 77 on Wednesday, and to celebrate another year on his storied life and career, he kicked off the first of a three-night run at his east coast home base, The Capitol Theatre, with a band of longtime Friends including guitarists John Kadlecik and Stanley Jordan, Terrapin family keyboardist Jason Crosby, John Molo on drums and vocalist Joan Osborne.
There are few ways to better open a show than with “After Midnight,” and Phil and Friends got the birthday party started with a downright funky take. Jordan, offering some some terrific early solo work, also got right down to proving his place as a frequent Phil & Friends member, if such ever needed assurance.
After continuing the flow through “Mr. Charlie” and “Bertha,” a resoundingly grateful response from the crowd erupted when Phil took his turn to sing, on a Friends’ staple cover, Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow,” which he nailed.
Being Phil’s birthday celebration, musical surprises were abound. The first came as the band worked their way through a huge cover combo, in a “Sounds of Silence” jam melted together with an “Eleanor Rigby” jam. Both were stretched out into grand, explorative performances, and were highlighted again by Jordan’s use of his classic finger-tapping style. Another completely unexpected cover followed to finish off set one, Jimmy Ruffin’s “What’s Become of the Broken Hearted.”
Returning the beginnings of set two to classic Dead material, the combo of “New Speedway Boogie” funneling into a big “The Other One” saw Phil dropping bass bombs and stepping up the helm to lead the group through a fantastic stretch of grooving.
The band powered out of Weir tune here to plunge headfirst into a grand, instrumental take on the entirety of “Stairway to Heaven,” to the absolute euphoria of an already exalted Capitol Theatre. The magnificence carried along through “Sugaree” and then “Terrapin,” before things charted towards home with “I Know You Rider” and then straight to the heart with a beautifully fitting “Not Fade Away.”
As shows of the Dead variety have always been known to do, the magic of this night revealed itself even beyond the music, emanating as well from the incredible spirit of the night. After the band walked off stage, there gracing the old Capitol walls came Bob Weir, or a video projection of him at least, beaming down on his old bandmate to wish him a happy 77th. And to tell him to “wipe the drool off your chin, and get back out here and play!”
The theatre was echoing with pure collective joy when next hundreds of candles, each marked ‘Let it Shine,’ were passed out, alighting the small sea of deadheads. The band then ripped off one more for the evening in “Turn On Your Lovelight.” Osborne in particular found her inspirational light here, dropping to her knees in an ecstasy of performance, throwing her hands out to the audience and belting out her soulful pleas. Eventually, she collected her senses to lead the crowd in one final “Happy Birthday” to Phil for the close of the night, a proper capping to a night that was a special way to toast the man, and his friends and his lifelong fans, for all the music and memories made possible over the years.
Phil Lesh & Friends Setlist
Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY
Set I: After Midnight, Mr. Charlie, Bertha, Broken Arrow, Sounds of Silence Jam, Eleanor Rigby Jam, Box of Rain, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
Set II: Shakedown Street, New Speedway Boogie, The Other One, Stairway to Heaven, Sugaree, Lady With a Fan, Terrapin Station, I Know You Rider, Not Fade Away
E: Turn On Your Lovelight, Happy Birthday