Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh turns 80 today, and we’re almost as happy about that as he is. However, we’re probably just as bummed out as he is about the COVID-19 crisis prompting the postponement of this weekend’s run of three Phil & Friends shows at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY to celebrate the successful installation of Phil Version 8.0.

What we can do, however, is take a stroll back through his 30 years and 2,314 shows with the Grateful Dead and find 10 shows containing some of our favorite Phil Lesh moments. In order to keep things moving and save space, we’re listing the Grateful Dead’s band members and tenures here so we can save space later by referring to the Godchauxs as “Keith” and “Donna” and to everyone else by their surnames:

Grateful Dead Band Members & Tenures

Phil Lesh – bass, vocals (1965-1995)
Bill Kreutzmann – drums (1965-1995)
Jerry Garcia – lead guitar, vocals (1965-1995)
Bob Weir – rhythm guitar, vocals (1965-1995)
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – vocals, keyboards, harp (1965-1972)
Mickey Hart – drums (1967-1971, 1975-1995)
Tom “T.C.” Constanten – keyboards 1968-70
Keith Godchaux – keyboards (1971-1979)
Donna Godchaux – vocals (1972-1979)
Brent Mydland – keyboards (1979-1990)
Bruce Horsnby – keyboards (1990-1992)
Vince Welnick – keyboards (1990-1995)

View Band Members and Tenures

These Phil moments are not ranked, nor are they in chronological order, nor are they a meant to be viewed as a top 10 of all time—they’re just 10 of our favorites. We’re sure that hardcore Lesh lushes will recognize many of them right away, and there are four from the ’70s, four from the ’80s and two from the ’90s. Oh, and apologies in advance if we left out your favorite Lesh moment from the ’60s or from the ’74 Wall of Sound shows.

Anyway, enough with the preliminaries. Turn up the volume and let’s dive in!

February 15, 1973 – Dane County Coliseum – Madison, WI

This is one of the most famous Grateful Dead shows that has yet to receive an official release, but it’s surely only a matter of time. As was so often the case, the centerpiece of this show was the big jam in the second set, which kicked off with a beautiful “Dark Star”. So far, so normal, but after around 15 minutes, the band backed off to create an on-the-spot opportunity for Lesh to deliver one of the most gloriously unkempt bass solos in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

Garcia’s gorgeous re-entry three minutes later came in the form of three of the sweetest notes he ever played onstage. Shortly thereafter, Phil ushered in the second-ever versions of “Eyes Of The World” and “China Doll” to keep things moving for another 25 minutes. Other highlights of this show included the “Here Comes Sunshine” that kicked off the second set and the “Box of Rain”, which had been added back into the live repertoire in the wake of Pigpen’s departure. As a bonus, this recording starts off with two songs from that day’s soundcheck, including “Box of Rain”.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

June 20, 1983 – Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD

Maybe it was the torrential thunderstorm that would have stopped this show if it was happening today. Maybe it was the crowd that continued to dance through the weather, even with the PA cutting out twice during “Truckin’”. Whatever “it” was, it prompted one of the most over-the-top second sets in the Grateful Dead’s 30-year history—and “it” may well have been Lesh, who responded to all of the above by dropping a week’s worth of bass bombs in 100 minutes.

By the time the band was coming out of the “Space” segment, it had gotten to the point where Weir saw fit to try out his “Bob Star” ditty for a second and final time as a lead-in to a shorter but forceful version of “The Other One”. Then, a PA overload resulted in some of Lesh’s loudest-ever blasts during the “fly away” section of “Wharf Rat”, which Weir followed by throwing any remaining restraint overboard and delivering a maniacal “Sugar Magnolia” complete with a short rap about dreams and Aborigines and some near-primal screams at its conclusion. Even the folks that can’t remember being there haven’t forgotten about this one.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

February 26, 1977 – Swing Auditorium – San Bernardino, CA

This one is widely regarded as one of the best Grateful Dead shows of all time, for so many reasons. The first set alone contains the debuts of “Terrapin Station” and “Estimated Prophet” and a 25-minute odyssey of “The Wheel” dropped into the middle of “Playing In The Band”. The first half of the second set is anchored by a gleaming, 26-minute version of “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower”, followed by a quick “Promised Land” as a palate cleanser.

The band topped all of that, however, by finishing the set with a trio of knockout punches. First up was the jazz via “Eyes Of The World”. At its conclusion, Lesh took a then-rare solo accompanied by the drummers, and it’s impossible not to love it—particularly since it led right to the funk and a definitive version of the Grateful Dead’s “disco” arrangement of “Dancing In The Streets” that contained a Garcia guitar solo for the ages. Finally, the band slammed it home with the rock ‘n’ roll via the Chuck Berry classic “Around & Around” and its frantic double-time break. This show finally received its long-awaited official release in 2019 as Dave’s Picks Vol. 29, and quickly sold out.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

September 10, 1991 – Madison Square Garden – New York, NY

One of the best “post-coma” era shows from 1986 to 1995, prompted by jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ third appearance with the band in 18 months. It would be the only time he’d play an entire show with the band, which had expanded to include Welnick and Hornsby in the wake of Mydland’s passing the year before. The show received an official release as the 1991 show in the “30 Trips Around The Sun” box set from 2015, and pretty much the entire show is one ongoing highlight.

The opening “Shakedown Street”, however, featured Lesh’s new Modulus bass and its looser string tone prominently. At the beginning of the song’s closing jam, he made an unexpected creative decision to start popping his strings funk-style (at about the 8:15 mark of this recording) to the surprise and delight of his bandmates, who responded in kind. Not for the first time, the combination of New York and an exceptional guest musician brought out the best in the Grateful Dead.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

June 14, 1985 – Greek Theatre – Berkeley, CA

In 1984, Lesh resumed singing for the Grateful Dead, more than a decade after blowing his voice out during the 1974 “Wall of Sound” era. By the end of the year, his preferred song was a cover of “Gimme Some Lovin”, sung as a duet with Mydland. The song was in regular rotation by the time the band celebrated their 20th anniversary with a run at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre in June, but now Phil needed another one to go with it.

The run’s opening night on June 14th got off to a strong start but had to be halted after five songs because of technical issues. After a short break, the band returned to finish the first set and used the occasion to deployed a huge surprise: a bust-out of Derek & The Dominos’ “Keep On Growing” that got a fantastic response. We’ve included an audience recording here so you can hear the crowd cheering when Phil starts to sing his solo lines in the second verse. Sadly, this little classic was retired from the Grateful Dead’s repertoire after only four performances, so we can think of this one as the “deep cut” from this list.

But this show has a lot more to offer than just “Keep On Growing”: Garcia would bust out the first “Stagger Lee” since 1982 as the very next song, and later he’d start the second set with “Morning Dew” for the first time since 1973 before busting out the first “Comes A Time” since 1980 just two songs later.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

March 20, 1986 – Hampton Coliseum – Hampton, VA

Once Lesh began singing again in 1984, it didn’t take too long for parking lot speculation on whether his signature song “Box Of Rain” might make its return to Grateful Dead shows. It finally did in March of 1986 at the Hampton Coliseum to close out an otherwise forgettable first set, serving as biggest bust-out of the year.

Once again, we’ve linked to an audience recording here because the crowd’s cheering after each line is as much a part of this performance as the band’s singing and playing. “Box of Rain” remained a staple in the band’s repertoire for the rest of their career and unlike most of the band’s songs, it could and would turn up in almost any part of the show. It’s fitting that “Box of Rain” actually become the final song of the band’s final show in 1995 when Lesh made a last-second call to make it the second song of the encore at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9, 1995.

March 23, 1995 – Charlotte Coliseum – Charlotte, NC

The Grateful Dead were a tired and road-weary band during their final two years of existence in 1994 and 1995. It’s difficult to find an entire show from these two years that holds up compared to earlier years, but there were still parts of shows that were strong, along with individual highlights to be found here and there.

One of those highlights was 1995’s biggest bust-out, “Unkroken Chain”, the holy grail for Lesh lushes that had never been played live despite its inclusion on the From The Mars Hotel LP in 1974. Deemed to be too complicated at the time, it remained on the shelf for 21 years until its unexpected debut to close the first set at the Philadelphia Spectrum on March 19th, 1995. The band only waited two shows (until the tour’s next stop in Charlotte) to play it again. This version remains our favorite and gets the nod here because this was one of the nine shows Hornsby played with the Grateful Dead band after leaving as a full-time member after the Spring Tour in 1992. It’s also the only one of the ten live versions of “Unbroken Chain” on which he plays. This version kicked off the second set, and as he was so often able to do during his time in the band, Hornsby successfully pushed Garcia into playing harder for the rest of the show.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

August 25, 1972 – Berkeley Community Theatre – Berkeley, CA

We’re committing a minor sin here by linking to a source that is missing the final three-plus songs of the show, but we had to include this one. The band had a great night, but Phil had an even better one. Not only was his playing on, his tone that night was a little thicker and fuzzier—as if he used an effects pedal that wasn’t a normal part of his setup.

It also helps that the recording that does exist is an amazing one, and it was engineered by Owsley “Bear” Stanley* who, fresh out of federal prison after serving two years for manufacturing LSD, caught lightning in a bottle on this night. Fortunately, the missing final reel of this show was eventually located, and the show was released in its entirety in 2017 as Dave’s Picks Vol. 24, which quickly sold out.

The show is vintage 1972 non-Pigpen Grateful Dead, but it’s long been overshadowed, unfairly, by two earlier nights from this run as well as the next show on August 27th in Veneta, Oregon. The first set’s highlights came from the faster, electric version of “Friend Of The Devil” and the extended jams on “Bird Song” and “Playing In The Band”. Lesh absolutely steals the second set, however, with his work on the jam that completes “Truckin’”, which led to him taking over for a full bass solo as a lead-in to “The Other One”. Unfortunately, the source material here cuts out 16 minutes into “The Other One”, but the minutes it includes are the 16 minutes you’d most want to hear.

[Audio: Matthew Vernon]

*It would be very difficult to overstate the influence that Owsley “Bear” Stanley (1935-2011) had on the Grateful Dead. He was equal parts “insane genius” and “complete outsider,” which made him a “difficult” person at times for the band, crew and management. Garcia summed up the situation perfectly when he once wisecracked to Lesh, “There’s nothing wrong with Bear that a few billion less brain cells wouldn’t cure.” Lesh, in particular, remained deeply loyal to Bear and worked to ensure that his inner-circle status was preserved over the years.

At this point some, of you may be thinking: “Hey man! You’re doing this thing about Phil and that’s cool. But you’re, like, 8 shows into it now and you haven’t even *mentioned* the bass intro to “The Other One”! That’s, like, my favorite thing that Phil does! You’re gonna talk about *that*, right?”

Yes. Of course.

October 27, 1979 – Cape Cod Coliseum – South Yarmouth, MA

For the better part of 50 years, non-Deadheads living in Deadhead-adjacent locations have been learning all about Phil Lesh’s rumbling bass introduction to “The Other One”—whether they wanted to or not. It’s always been one of those things that just seemed to make people stop their cassette, rewind it 30 seconds or so, and then turn the stereo up louder before playing it again. The fact that it leads into one of the Grateful Dead’s biggest and best songs certainly doesn’t hurt, either, though whenever folks try to determine a “best-ever” or even a “definitive” version of Phil’s bass intro, things can get slippery. This intro would come and go over the years, and along with Phil’s equipment and playing, it would change and evolve over time.

This legendary version from Cape Cod Coliseum during Mydland’s first year with the band, however, is the one that makes just about everyone’s shortlist. In basketball terms, there was beautiful movement down the court with “He’s Gone”. The rare jam on the riff of their 1965 song “Caution: Do Not Stop On Tracks” served as the alley-oop pass, and Lesh’s “Other One” intro was a slam dunk that shattered the backboard Moses Malone-style. As a bonus, Lesh repeated the intro segment two more times as a lead-in to each of the song’s verses. This show got an official release as the 1979 show in the sold-out, 80-CD “Thirty-Trips Around The Sun” box set in 2015.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

May 7, 1989 – Frost Amphitheater – Palo Alto, CA

We’re going to finish up and send you on your way with one more “Other One intro” show, but one that’s a little less widely known. It’s actually the last of the 14 Grateful Dead shows in the intimate, forest-like setting of Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford University campus in the 1980s. It just so happened to be Kreutzmann’s 43rd birthday, and this Sunday afternoon show was solid and enjoyable. Itt makes the cut here, though, because of 12 shining minutes in the second set that showed that the band still knew how to experiment, explore, and blow a few minds in the process.

In the spring of 1989 Garcia, Weir and Lesh all started using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) equipment onstage, which are most easily explained as computer-based devices that allowed for all kinds of manipulation of sounds and tones. They can allow a guitarist  to pluck a string and have it sound like a woodwind or brass instrument, or whatever else they wanted, essentially turning a guitar or a bass into a portable synthesizer that could also “play” stored sound samples.

The band had limited the use of the MIDI technology to the “Space” segment of the show until that year’s fall tour so they could experiment more freely, but on this day Lesh went wild with his new toys about halfway through the segment and generated a truly brain-bending segment of sound overload. The momentum carried through to a rip-roaring version of “The Other One”, complete with a great 6-string version of his bass intro and Weir’s manipulated vocals courtesy of soundman Dan Healy.

[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]

Encore: Phil’s Organ Donor Rap

Phil Lesh would not have reached the age of 80 without the liver transplant he received in 1998, and if you’ve seen him perform live since then you’ve heard him advocate for becoming an organ donor ahead of the encore at every show he plays: “All you have to do is tell your family: ‘If something ever happens to me, I want to be an organ donor.’” Lesh’s printable donor card can be found here.