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Phil Lesh And Friends

SAN FRANCISCO � For a band fronting a bass player who was once the backbone of The Grateful Dead's formidable rhythm section, Phil Lesh and Friends have proved a strong showcase for lead guitarists. Various incarnations of the Friends have featured such accomplished soloists as Hot Tuna's Jorma Kaukonen, Little Feat's Paul Barrere, and Phish's Trey Anastasio � all of whom, at one point or another, shared the stage with Zero's legendary guitarist, Steve Kimock, who literally sat at the center of the Friends' gale-force sound from the summer of 1998 until the fall of 1999, when Kimock abruptly left the band in the middle of a Midwest tour. The loss of Kimock has hung over every lineup of Phil Lesh and Friends since; if Lesh was seen by many Deadheads as the true keeper of The Dead's flame, Kimock was seen as the only mortal on the planet who had a chance of filling the late Jerry Garcia's shoes. Which is not to say that Lesh has been paralyzed by the loss of Kimock, as was evident Sunday for the final night of a four-show homestand in San Francisco's intimate, light-show bedecked, and very crowded Maritime Hall. Backed as ever by the indomitable John Molo on drums, the band featured the same lineup that has been touring with Lesh since last fall: Rob Barraco on keyboards and vocals, Jimmy Herring on guitar, and former Allman Brother Warren Haynes on guitar and vocals. (Six of the shows from that fall tour have been released in their entirety, for free, in digital format via www.thephilzone.com.) The five-hour show (including a lengthy break between sets) opened promisingly with "Dancin' in the Streets," a Dead favorite that Lesh gave a fresh arrangement in 1999 and which Barraco sang on Sunday night. Right away, the loss of Kimock was evident. Whereas Kimock would have been careful not to intrude on the playing of his band mates, Haynes showed all his cards early, running right over his colleagues with high-and-hard flights into the upper registers. It didn't matter if Herring or Barraco were warming to their own solos, or even if Barraco was singing a verse, Haynes would be there, occasionally challenging his stage mates to musical duels, which were good-naturedly answered by a smiling Herring and an exuberant Barraco, who at times could scarcely keep his seat. Not that Haynes' relentless slide- and synthesized-guitar work generated even a trace of animosity on the stage � but Herring and Barraco had to pick out their solos over Haynes' sometimes screechy guitar. The band's draining interplay moved from "Dancin'" through a triumphant "Scarlet Begonias" and back again into "Dancin'," this time with Herring playing a Garcia riff note for note. The second set, though, made the first set look like the warm-up: It ran for two hours without a break, opening with an extended jam that went on for perhaps 15 minutes before settling in on a cover of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" sung by Haynes. This time, Herring was given a chance to show what he could do, which consisted of fluid picking that ran easily up and down the scales. Seamlessly, the band found its way into "Dark Star," followed by a very spacey jam, and then the first of two Beatles covers, "Tomorrow Never Knows." Some steam was lost as the Friends wandered back into "Dark Star" and then into "Wharf Rat," but the energy level was ratcheted back up for good with "Viola Lee Blues," a tune from The Dead's first album that is especially well-suited to Haynes' hard-edged style. Though the audience had already gotten its money's worth of music, Lesh kept the jam going and moved the group into a heroic rendition of "In the Midnight Hour" that had the crowd dancing so hard that the floor in the old hall was bouncing up and down with the beat. Then, as with "Dancin'" and "Dark Star" earlier, it was back into "Viola" to close out the second set. On the three previous nights, Lesh and Friends had dutifully performed a song or two for an encore, but on Sunday, the band played four tunes for another half hour or so, beginning with a Barraco-sung "Strawberry Fields Forever" and ending with Barraco's spare piano accompanying Haynes and Lesh on "And We Bid You Goodnight." A very good night, indeed. By Ben Marks(wallofsound.com)
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