Watching The River Flow: On Tour With Phil Lesh And Bob Dylan (Fall 1999)

J.C. Juanis on December 7, 2012

Back in the fall of 1999 Phil Lesh & Friends took to the road for a tour with Bob Dylan. Lesh’s band on most of these days included 4/5 of the what would be known as the Phil Lesh Quintet as the bassist was joined by Warren Haynes, Rob Barraco and John Molo. Rather than Jimmy Herring, a young Derek Trucks appeared on guitar for many of these gigs with Jorma Kaukonen (and others) contributing as well. Here’s a feature story on the tour, which originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Relix.

When it was first announced that former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh would be embarking on an extensive tour with Bob Dylan, rock fans were overjoyed. The two artists have crossed paths many times over the years as Dylan and the Dead shared both a common musical vision and an audience made up of many of the same devoted fans.

This tour was the biggest excursion undertaken by Lesh since his liver transplant provided him with a new lease on life less than a year earlier. The tour would cover 17 dates in mostly college arenas, as well as touching down in some of the favorite touring stops that the Grateful Dead enjoyed for so many years. The shows were advertised with both artists receiving equal billing on the posters and advertisements. Shortly before the tour began, Lesh and Dylan decided that for the sake of the ease of production process and soundchecks, they would agree to a coin toss to determine who would perform first. Lesh, having won the toss, elected to play first at each of the shows. The tour was set; the only thing left to do was to prepare for the road. For Lesh, though, that meant some unexpected detours along the way.

Phil Lesh and Friends decided to do some warm up shows at The Fillmore Auditorium in Denver with Paul Barrere and Billy Payne from Little Feat who were signed on to perform with Lesh on the first leg of the Dylan tour. By all accounts, these shows were a resounding success as the Little Feat members blended perfectly with the hard jamming sounds of Phil Lesh and Friends.

While Steve Kimock had always been the cornerstone of all the previous Phil and Friends shows, the guitarist walked off the tour after the opening performance with Dylan in Champaign, Illinois. Since his abrupt departure, the guitarist has never given a full accounting of the reasons for bailing, leaving many fans bewildered. That said, Kimock returned to San Francisco on the eve of the biggest showcase of his life. Also complicating matters was the dismissal of roadies Steve Parish and Ramrod. The reasons for their dismissal appeared to be some old issues between the Dylan and Dead road crews. Lesh addressed this matter on his Website several days later when he posted a message under his pen name Reddy Kilowatt. “I will not allow old politics and ego to poison what I am striving to do,” he said, “a tour where the only mission is to do our best to honor the music, the musicians, and the community.”

While the loss of such a significant musical partner such as Kimock could have spelled doom to a lesser band, the departure actually opened new doors for the bassist as Lesh quickly discovered. Phil Lesh and Friends played its next two dates with Paul Barrere and Billy Payne before guitarist Derek Trucks signed on to the tour in time for a rollicking Halloween show in Chicago, which was the last show on the tour with the Little Feat guys.

Like a young Jedi knight wielding his light saber, Trucks’ soulful, high-soaring, slide-guitar playing added an unheard element in the Phil Lesh and Friends sound. Trucks’ arrival came at just the right time as Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes and Zen Tricksters keyboardist Rob Barraco joined the tour at the next gig, providing what would be the core band for most of the remaining shows on the tour.

While the Internet chat groups debated what was occurring on the state of affairs with Phil Lesh and Friends, we left San Francisco to embark on our first Grateful Dead related tour since the band’s 20th Anniversary shows back in 1985. The following recounts some of the moments that occurred on the last half of the tour.

After an afternoon exploring our nation’s first capital, we descended on Temple University. Philadelphia is an old city, and this newly constructed venue stands in stark contrast to the surrounding buildings, many of which are over 100 years old. While we don’t make it back east very often, we were greeted by many old friends including Relix publisher, Toni Brown. Toni is a celebrity in her own right in these parts and while we chatted, many fans came by and gave us their warm wishes. We were heartened to learn that Phil had jammed with Bob Dylan the previous night in Delaware performing “Friend Of The Devil.” In recent years, Dylan has included the Dead classic in his set.

Proving that the world is indeed a small place we also ran into Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams, who had come out to catch her first sets of Phil and Friends shows. Jerry Garcia’s former wife gave a big thumbs-up to what she had heard the evening before. Throughout the tour, the venues employed a reserved seat policy in the stands, with an open general admission for fans on the floor. Admission to the floor required a wristband, which caused some delays for folks who were trying to make it down to the floor area.

The show’s format had changed a bit since the last Phil and Friends shows at the Warfield Theater. As the house lights remained on, Phil Lesh and the band – drummer John Molo, keyboardist Rob Barraco, and guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes – eased into a jam that increased in volume and energy. As the lights dimmed a good five minutes into the beginning jam, Lesh and the guitarists floated like butterflies with some sensitive passages that soon increased in intensity. Trucks and Haynes certainly work well together, and in this context, they were simply awesome. Quoting instrumental passages from “Mountain Jam” and “Blue Sky,” Lesh’s bass always ringing at full throttle, the band embarked on what had to be a good 25-minute jam before morphing into “Crazy Fingers.” Rob Barraco’s tenure with one of America’s best jam bands, the Zen Tricksters, certainly served him well as his vocals hit the mark. Barraco was playing a Hammond B-3 organ that was previously used by none other than the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.

“Unbroken Chain” was greeted like a long-lost friend. Lesh’s voice was met with a thunderous ovation, and the song’s intricate middle section was performed masterfully. Phil and Friends were joined by blues queen Susan Tedeschi for “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Turn On Your Lovelight,” which proved to be the highlight of the show. Tedeschi demonstrated her prowess as a masterful guitarist, adding some fiery guitar licks with Trucks and Haynes.

Dylan, it must be said, is at the top of his game musically these days. His band has also undergone some personnel changes in recent months as guitarist Larry Campbell filled the void left by departing pedal steel guitarist Bucky Baxter. Guitarist Charlie Sexton is now a full-fledged player in Dylan’s crack band as well. His show has also undergone some revamping as the legendary rocker performs a first-half acoustic set, followed by an electric set. Some standouts of his set included, “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll,” “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “Shooting Star.” Instead of playing from a short list of songs, Dylan’s live set list has expanded considerably as he performed rare versions of Porter Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” the latter featuring a scorching guitar solo by Sexton.

The next evening’s show at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New Haven brought out several “friends” – Phish’s Mike Gordon, Zen Tricksters’ Jeff Mattson and Max Creek’s Scott Murowski, to check out the show. The revamping of Phil and Friends’ show to include a freewheeling opening jam continued to yield much in the way of musical fireworks. The band once again performed as an ensemble, not just a collection of soloists, with the group locking into some solid grooves before coalescing into a joyous rendition of “Uncle John’s Band.” During the 90-minute medley, Lesh delivered the first ever East Coast performance of the Grateful Dead classic “Pride Of Cucamonga,” while Warren Haynes was sensational during his original Phil Lesh and Friends original, “Patchwork Quilt.”

Dylan’s set also produced some powerful musical moments. Opening with the gospel tinged, Ralph Stanley-penned bluegrass tune, “I Am The Man, Thomas,” Dylan, the fiery folksinger, displayed some awesome acoustic power during “My Back Pages,” “John Brown” and “One Too Many Mornings.” The song selection was sensational, as was Dylan’s rock solid rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper, who was a mainstay of the Jerry Garcia Band. Dylan continued to mine gold performing stellar versions of “Positively 4th Street,” “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” During the encore, Lesh came out to join Dylan’s band for a rollicking arrangement of “West LA Fadeway” and “Not Fade Away” to close the evening. Apparently, Dylan’s band had rehearsed several Dead songs in anticipation of performing with the former Dead bassist and the preparation was rewarded with a razor-sharp rendition.

One of the most anticipated shows of the tour was the November 13 performance at the Continental Airlines Arena, located in the Meadowlands Complex in New Rutherford, New Jersey. This show was long sold out, attesting to the enormous drawing power of these two world-class artists. The parking lots surrounding the venue were packed with fans early and it was nice to be back on “Shakedown Street.” The carnival atmosphere was reminiscent of the glory days when the Grateful Dead made this venue a popular spot during its East Coast tours.

Inside the arena, anticipation reached a fever pitch as Lesh and Friends began its show typically with a nearly half-hour jam. Derek Trucks was incredible and his incendiary slide guitar playing was one of the early highlights of the show. Lesh and Friends totally revamped version of Dino Valente’s anthem, “Get Together,” was also a stroke of genius as the song was given a very upbeat, calypso arrangement featuring some relentless poly-rythems by drummer John Molo.

Warren Haynes delivered a sensational version of the Traffic tune “Dear Mr. Fantasy” that also displayed the awesome strengths of this band. The die hard New Jersey crowd exploded in approval from the opening strains of “Cryptical Envelopment” that was only surpassed when Lesh lobbed one of his patented “bombs” during a ferocious “Other One.” The jam that followed included “Days Between” and John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” before coming back full circle with “Cryptical.” The set-ending “Help On The Way,” “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower” was thrilling.

As if energized by the exciting set by Lesh, Dylan performed an emotional show that included many of the touchstones of his folk rock origins. Despite performing before a sold-out throng of 18,000 people, the room became an intimate folk club, as one could hear a pin drop in the hushed arena. The crowd reacted to some of the singer/songwriter’s tunes in quiet reverence, and they were rewarded mightily as Dylan delivered a sermon that included “Song To Woody,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Visions Of Johanna” with stunning power and clarity.

The electric set was no less impressive as Dylan broke out Muddy Waters’ “Hootchie Cootchie Man,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Joey” and a haunting “Not Dark Yet.” During the set-closing “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat,” someone from the audience tossed up a leopard print hat, which landed perfectly on Dylan’s microphone. Dylan, who had his back turned when it happened, broke into uncharacteristic laughter when he turned back to sing the song’s final verse. The good vibes continued well into the encore when Dylan was again joined by Lesh for a rousing version of “Alabama Getaway” and “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35.” Dylan, Lesh, and Dylan’s bassist, Tony Garnier, stood close together, all grinning ear-to-ear during the tasty jam.

After the show, a party was held at the nearby Sheraton Hotel where guitarist Jeff Mattson and bassist Klyph Black from the Zen Tricksters entertained.

If there was one Phil and Friends show to pick as the best, one would be hard pressed to exclude the show held November 14 at The Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts. From the opening notes of the jam that began the show, to the ending strains of “Not Fade Away,” this show certainly hit the high water mark with many. After a long, sinewy jam that explored every nook and cranny of space, the band exploded into the classic, “Dark Star,” with Lesh, Haynes and Rob Barraco sharing each of the song’s verses. Trucks and Haynes proved that they are consummate jammers, each taking a new pathway into the uncharted waters of outer space. The freewheeling jam led into a wonderful arrangement of “Sugaree” that featured some great vocals by Haynes. The jam that followed led into “Cosmic Charlie” and was welcomed like a long-lost friend by the sold-out arena audience. The group continued in the spacy mode, again reprising “Dark Star,” including the song’s second verse, before again dropping a bomb on the audience with an explosive “St. Stephen” that would not be complete without an equally pyrotechnic “The Eleven Jam.”

Lesh’s joyous celebration was beautifully capped by “Not Fade Away.” Despite the rousing opening set by Phil and Friends, Bob Dylan and his band continued the relentless pacing of the show. Opening with the seldom performed gospel hymn “Somebody Touched Me,” Dylan’s acoustic set included “To Ramona,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” which may be as powerful a song as has ever been written. Also featured was “Everything Is Broken,” “Like A Rolling Stone” and a very rare, fifteen-minute rendition of “Highlands,” that showed a jazzy, poetic side of the rock superstar. Dylan proved again to be a man of many surprises.

The show the next evening at Cornell University’s Barton Hall in Ithaca, New York, also yielded a different twist, as Phil and Friends included not only Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, but also Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen on guitar. Besides being the smallest venue on the tour, Barton Hall also holds many fond memories of what is considered to be one of the greatest Grateful Dead shows of all time, May 8, 1977. The surrounding area also includes such historic Dead venues as Harpur College, the site of another historic show on May 2, 1970, and the Broome Country Arena in nearby Binghamton.

Barton Hall is an ancient place that hasn’t changed a bit since 1977. Because of its historical significance to Deadheads, this show proved to be the toughest ticket with legions of ticket-less Heads, fingers held high, some with $100r bills, searching in vain for that all elusive “miracle ticket.” Adding to the frigid mix of driving snow and bitter cold, the venue had one small doorway through which every person had to enter.

Once inside, the arena contained a spongy surface very conducive for dancing, with painted lines used for track and field events. The security consisted solely of students wearing some snappy looking Bob Dylan and Phil Lesh and Friends T-shirts, giving the event the air of a psychedelic sock hop.

Despite the fact that the show was long sold out, by the time Phil and Friends took to the stage, the place was barely one-third full. Jorma Kaukonen plugged in between Trucks and Barraco, and during the show’s opening jam, was unobtrusive, content to allow Haynes and Trucks lead the charge. “Eyes Of The World” was serene in its majesty, picking up considerably into a thunderous “Caution Jam” that wove magically into “Mountains Of The Moon.” The hall provided a surreal echo, as the drums and music bounced back toward the stage. Kaukonen finally stepped out during Haynes’ “Soulshine,” delivering a breathtaking guitar solo before diving headfirst into the old Pigpen-era Dead classic, “Mr. Charlie.” The “Cold Rain And Snow” that followed was appropriate, and the interesting jam that ensued drove into “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad.” “We Bid You Goodnight” was heartfelt as the room’s acoustics added to the a cappella tune. During the band introductions, Phil acknowledged, “It’s great to be back in a place that has so much historical significance for all of us.” For Trucks, this was his last appearance of the tour, as his own band was scheduled to hit the road.

Bob Dylan continued to seek out some gems from his considerable songbook and favorites, performing a seldom played “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” “Cat’s In The Well,” “Senor,” “I Want You” and “Money Honey,” a song that had previously never been performed. “Senor” was superb, with Larry Campbell playing a wonderful fiddle solo, and Dylan adding some rich, full blasts from his harmonica.

If Cornell University was full of childhood exuberance, the show at Wittemore Center on the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham, New Hampshire, was sobering in its contrast. The show was delayed for nearly an hour as campus police, assisted by New Hampshire State Police, converged en masse to bust anyone in the parking lot that was vending. The crackdown prevented the doors to the venue from being opened as all the security was focused on the parking lots. Inside the crowded arena, police waded into the center of the crowded floor to bust possibly hundreds people for smoking illegal substances. Such police action has not been seen in a docile concert setting since the early ‘70s at Nassau Coliseum. Viewing the constant dragging out of fans from the crowd cast an eerie pall on the proceedings as the police, in some cases, brought their handcuffed suspects through the backstage and dressing room areas.

The fans that did manage to see the show were rewarded with a wonderful selection of songs. The jam that opened the show was more conservative in structure than previous shows, but was no less satisfying. Kaukonen and Haynes sparred like old prizefighters as Lesh, Barraco and Molo provided a solid launching pad for them to shoot into space. The performance of “Attics Of My Life” was astonishing as Barraco, Lesh and Kaukonen hit their mark vocally on this inspired Grateful Dead classic. The set focused more on the songs than jams as Kaukonen’s version of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” and Haynes’ working of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” gave the set a definite blues feel. Also outstanding was Kaukonen’s “Good Shepherd,” which was performed perfectly. The inclusion of “Get Together” was masterful in its newfound execution, and “Blue Sky” featured soaring guitar work by Kaukonen and Haynes that was a marvel to hear.

Dylan’s set was also filled with more gems as the talented songwriter continued to deal aces from the bottom of the deck. Breaking out another tune – “Duncan And Brady” – to open his set, Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” was weepy and potent in its delivery. Peppering his set with such nuggets as “Desolation Row,” “If You See Her, Say Hello” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” with the seldom performed “Rock Of Ages” and “Down By The Cove,” displayed the artist at the top of his craft. His band is tight, and Dylan’s guitar playing was fast and furious. He ended songs on a dime with one backward glance towards drummer David Kemper. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that both the Dylan and Lesh camps were glad that the tour didn’t end in New Hampshire.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has a well-deserved reputation as being a party school. Renowned in the pages of Playboy Magazine’s annual college review issue, the school is known as “The Zoo.” So it was understood that the show would be a far cry from the previous night’s debacle in New Hampshire.

Phil and Friends rose to the occasion performing an opening jam that was sublime, featuring Kaukonen and Haynes. The ensemble playing was magnificent as Lesh, Barraco and Molo provided solid support in workmanlike fashion, really allowing the guitarists to hit their mark. The jam magically wove into the opening strains of “St. Stephen,” that was met with a deafening roar from the crowd. Haynes’ and Kaukonen’s guitar playing was as frenzied as two pit bulls fighting over a piece of meat, as Lesh’s bass playing shook the foundations of the arena during “The Eleven Jam.” Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow” is another tune in Lesh’s song canon to which the former Dead bassist does justice. Featured on Phil Lesh and Friends’ recent release, Love Will See You Through (Grateful Dead Merchandising), Lesh’s sensitive vocal delivery awakes many emotions, and this performance was no exception. Besides being a world class guitarist, Haynes is also a fine vocalist as he displayed during his wonderful rendition of Traffic’s “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys.” And let’s not forget Jorma Kaukonen whose participation in this final leg of the Phil and Friends tour was highly anticipated as well. Kaukonen was sensational as the Hot Tuna founder pulled “I Am The Light Of This World” out of his considerable musical bag of songs. His bluesy voice and folksy guitar playing were tasty throughout the show.

It was hard to believe after the sensational “Scarlet Begonias” and “Franklin’s Tower,” that the tour was coming to an end.

The set by Bob Dylan that followed will probably go down in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll as one of those truly special musical moments. Dylan began his acoustic set with the gospel flavored “Somebody Touched Me,” before preaching the gospel of his legendary songbook of tunes for which he is so well known. He performed “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “Tangled Up In Blue” before strapping on his black Fender Stratocaster guitar for electric versions of “Man Of Peace” and “You’re A Big Girl Now.” Dylan then announced to a stunned crowed, “I want to bring out a friend of mine for this next song,” and out from the wings stepped Haynes. The Gov’t Mule guitarist wasted no time in getting down to business performing a hair-raising version of “All Along The Watchtower,” while Larry Campbell wailed on his pedal steel. Dylan appeared to relish his jam with Haynes as the two stood toe-to-toe, each unleashing a volley of guitar solos as the crowd howled in appreciation.

After another rare marathon version of “Highlands,” Dylan brought out Haynes and Kaukonen for “Highway 61 Revisited.” Again, Dylan turned his smiling face to Haynes as the Gov’t Mule guitarist ripped into an exciting slide guitar solo. After the obligatory encores of “Love Sick” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” Phil Lesh joined Dylan on stage. “It has been an honor and a privilege to be playing with Phil Lesh and I hope we can do it again,” Dylan announced to the crowd. Lesh joined Dylan for a wonderful acoustic arrangement of “Friend Of The Devil” that featured a trademark harmonica solo from the iconoclastic rocker. With Lesh standing at his side, Dylan then brought Haynes and Kaukonen back out for a rollicking version of “Not Fade Away,” followed by “Alabama Getaway” with the cast of musicians each taking a generous solo while backed by Dylan’s crack band. After Lesh, Haynes and Kaukonen left the stage, Dylan continued his seven-song encore with thrilling performances of “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Rainy Day Women No. 12 &35,” after which he put on a white cowboy hat and strolled straight to his waiting tour bus.

In what was truly a testament to both artists, Lesh and Dylan undertook what turned out to be one of finest tours of the decade. The stellar musicianship and camaraderie was both real and infectious as was demonstrated by the numerous jams and musical magic that occurred during the performances. There were more than a few misty eyes in both camps after the final note had been played, and the unanimous opinion was that both artists would again share a stage together in the future. This is welcome news, indeed.