16 July 2008

Gettin' HIGH Part III: Phil Lesh and Levon Helm @ HIGHland Bowl

I closed out this little trilogy on a serious HIGH note. I'll come right out and say it, this concert was near perfect. Looking back I don't think I would change one thing, except the steep ticket price. But at least I didn't give Ticketbastard a cut.

I left the beautiful smell of smoking meats and followed the stench of western New York's biggest hippie gathering of the year. With the rain behind us the weather turned perfect again, and the setting for this concert could not have been any better. Might as well have dropped us into Golden Gate Park in the late 60s. The Highland Bowl is a bowled area in the park, with nice sloping hills on all sides, surrounded by trees, featuring a small amphitheater in the middle. There was a good amount of moochers hanging out in the periphery of the park getting free access to the music, and not too bad views for some of them too. The only security presence was at the fences surrounding the area, inside it was virtual free-for-all. An old man decked out in about as much marijuana swag possible on one human body (he wasn't wearing any shoes but if he was I am sure they would have sported a marijuana leaf) whipped out his bag of goodies, broke it up, rolled one, smoked it and passed it around in broad daylight without ever looking over his shoulder for fear of getting caught. The show drew a decently large crowd, tough to really tell how many in this setting. There were a lot of people there, but it was spread out nicely and you could really go anywhere you wanted with ease, even all the way 3 rows off the rail. It was a very mellow scene, as it should be.

Anyway, onto the music. Levon Helm and his band were up first. The setup reminded me of the Soul Stew show I had seen the night before, the size of the band and the 3 piece horns were what really made the connection. Whereas Soul Stew examined the bluesier side of American music, Helm and his band dug into the folk roots realm more, oh and also this band you might have heard of before, whose name was, wait don't tell me, oh yeah, The Band. Levon's band on this night accordioned from as few as 4 to as many as 10 members, and yes, even featured an accordion. Larry Campbell pulled double duty on the night playing in both bands and John Molo also sat in on drums for a bunch of tunes. They closed with the Weight just as the Soul Stew had the night before. I had thought to myself then, I am definitely hearing this one again. This was a great set to see, in part to see a living legend, and in larger part because the music was just so damn good. I will have to pick up his new album pronto.

As I read some reviews of last weekend's All Good Festival I realized that nearly every band I saw this week, from Widespread on through to Phil Lesh, also played at All Good. And most of them played at Rothbury the week before. I guess Rochester makes a good stopping point between Michigan and West Virginia. Good for us.

I don't remember the last time I had seen Phil and Friends. A few years maybe. But I also don't remember seeing a Phil and Friends concert that was quite this good, rivaling the best of the Herring/Haynes era. Jackie Greene is just that good. He's got the voice, he absolutely shreds on guitar, and plays piano and organ too... Then throw in Larry Campbell on guitar and pedal steel (which I am a total sucker for), Steve Molitz on keys (who happened to be a nice change and upgrade from Barraco, throwing in some unexpected and whacked-out sounds here and there, but in a good, nay great, way), and Teresa Williams from Levon's band adding some fantastic vocals here and there. Wow, this was a great band. And by the way, Phil Lesh is the best jamming bass player out there. He somehow holds down the low end and doesn't ever play a bass line all night. His fingers are always moving and he never settles on a single groove, it is constant change with him. But he also never stands out and never puts his sound out front, always melding in perfectly with everyone else.

The first set wasn't so much about what was played, but what was played in between what was played. Phil would call out commands into his mic and the band would heed, switching key, changing rhythm, or simply heading in a new direction. These little interludes were fantastic. At set break I realized I hardly could repeat a single song they played, but I knew I loved every minute of it.
Set closing Cosmic Charlie:

The second set was then all about what they played. And they freakin played. Rippin versions of the Other One, Morning Dew (how good with Jackie and Teresa on vocals?-- this was a total shudder free concert), and Help>Slip>Frank's. Franklin's Tower was such a sweet way to end the night. The band was bopping, the crowd was hopping, and Teresa was dancing (her voice just a perfect addition here), it was seriously electric. Jackie Greene was just an all-star. I have heard good reviews since he joined on, but really I couldn't have expected this, the kid can play! And has it been mentioned that he bears the initials JG?! What a great day. I left before the encore to beat the crowd and get home after a long day.

Set 1: One More Saturday Night, Cumberland Blues, Me & My Uncle > Brown-Eyed Women, So Hard To Find My Way > Operator, Cosmic Charlie

Set 2: New Speedway Boogie > He's Gone, Candyman, Cryptical > Other One > Cryptical > Morning Dew, Help On The Way > Slipknot !> Franklin's Tower

encore: Truckin'

Download the show here

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