Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh turns 80 today, and while planned birthday run at The Capitol Theatre may have been postponed, fans can help fill the gap by revisiting some of the Dead’s notable performances which took place over the years on his birthday, March 15th.
Before we hop on the bus for a long, strange trip down memory lane, here’s some age-related trivia surrounding the bassist and his former band. Phil was always the oldest member of the Grateful Dead, so he’s the first member of the band to turn 80–lead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia invited Lesh to join the band not long after he’d hit the ripe old age of 25. Lesh has also reached his 80th birthday before any surviving member of The Beatles, The Who, The Doors, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys, The Allman Brothers, as well as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Lesh was, however, beaten to the punch classic rock colleagues in Bill Wyman, (83, The Rolling Stones), Grace Slick, (80, Jefferson Airplane), Garth Husdson (82, The Band), Kris Kristofferson (83), John Mayall (86), and Willie Nelson (86).
Unlike Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, whose 11 birthday shows on May 7th were spread out pretty evenly over the band’s 30-year run from 1965-95, Lesh’s five birthday performances were concentrated in the earliest part of the band’s career. Three of the Dead’s five shows to fall on March 15th took place during the 1960s. Unfortunately, two of those took place prior when the band or their fans began taping live performances, thus there’s no known recording of the first few–in each case, we’ve substituted an excellent recording from an adjacent day. Fortunately, it was early enough that fans can guess with reasonable confidence that the adjacent is probably pretty close in repertoire to the actual birthday shows, though the running order would certainly have changed each night.
Grateful Dead – Winterland Ballroom – 3/18/67
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
Lesh’s first birthday show (on his 27th birthday) was so early in the band’s career that they were still a quintet at this point, with rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and singer/keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan joining Lesh, Garcia and Kreutzmann. The show was part of a week-long stint at the 400-capacity Whisky-A-Go-Go club on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, CA, which was now on the national map after its former “house band” The Doors released their debut LP two months earlier. It appears the Grateful Dead were supporting Anthony & The Imperials each night during the week-long residency, and on March 17th, the last day of the run, the Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut LP was released.
The following day, the band would return to their home turf in San Francisco to play shows on the 18th and 19th at Winterland Arena as the main support to Chuck Berry, and fortunately, a recording from the 18th has survived. Unsurprisingly, it’s a young, energetic band who are just happily blitzing through their tunes. The band would play five of the nine songs that made their debut LP that night, but what’s really striking about the setlist is how little original material it contained–though it’s worth mentioning four of the cover songs in “Morning Dew”, “Me & My Uncle”, “Beat It On Down The Line”, and “Cold Rain & Snow” would remain in the band’s repertoire for their entire career. It’s also worth noting that Pigpen was still very much the frontman of the band at this point as he sang lead on four of the songs. The two originals the band did play, however, were rarities that fans are lucky to still be able to hear. The version of “Cream Puff War” was the last of only seven known recorded versions before the song was shelved, and the version of “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” is the first known live recording of the song–and one of only three known to exist before the song was axed from live sets.
Grateful Dead – Carousel Ballroom – 3/16/68
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
It really doesn’t get any more San Francisco/60s counterculture than when Phil Lesh celebrated turning 28 while the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane played a three-night run at the Carousel Ballroom in 1968. At that time, the venue was run as a collective by those two bands, along with Big Brother & The Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The bands weren’t quite able to make the venue work as a business (not surprisingly) but that’s to be expected when they apply business practices like, “burn $1 or pay $5” as the admission policy. All that would change four months later when a local promoter named Bill Graham took over the venue and rechristened it the Fillmore West. There is no known recording from the performance of that run on March 15th, but fortunately, there is one from the following day.
By the, the band had expanded to a sextet with the addition of Mickey Hart as the second drummer. The band’s creative floodgates had opened drastically between 1967 and 1968, and their set was mostly comprised of new originals like “Dark Star”, “China Cat Sunflower”, “The Eleven”, “Cryptical Envelopment”, “The Other One”, and “New Potato Caboose”. Pigpen’s role as a frontman was also preserved, if not elevated. He’d get to finish off the first set with “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, while his new tune “Alligator”–which would be liked with his existing original “Caution: Do Not Stop On Tracks”–comprised the heart of the second set.
If anyone at that Winterland 1967 show had doubted the Dead’s ability to write songs that would set them apart from everyone else, that doubt would have well and truly extinguished by now.
Grateful Dead – Hilton Hotel – 3/15/69
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
This is one of the weirdest shows that the Grateful Dead ever played, which is saying something. This one-set performance was part of the Black And White Ball, an annual fund-raiser for the San Francisco Symphony, and the ticket price was more than four times as much as the average cost of a rock show back in those days. If you’re wondering how the Dead got roped into this, it’s because Weir’s adoptive parents existed in San Francisco’s upper-crust circles, and Mom called in a favor. On principle, it seemed like a good idea, and the band played along further by dressing up in black and white costumes in the guises of pirates, sailors, and even Zorro.
While even though the crowd seemed to enjoy the show, it was besieged by equipment problems and the band didn’t think they had a good night, as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen would famously recount in his piece about the event, published three days later:
After the gig, Jerry Garcia was depressed. “We sounded terrible,” he lamented, rubbing his thick, black beard. “Couldn’t get the feel of the room. It was like playing in a cocktail lounge. We wanted to do a good job tonight – this is our hometown, after all – but we’ve played better on the road after five nights of no sleep. Too bad. But say, did you see all those people out on the floor dancing? Having fun? That part was fun. I wish the kids at the Fillmore who never dance could have seen that.”…as Garcia walked away, a society matron followed him with her eyes and said, “Oh, it talks, does it?” Yeah, it talks. “What in the world do you find to SAY to people like that?” she asked. I couldn’t find anything to say to her, so I left.
Instead of hanging around and mingling afterward like they were supposed to, the band skipped out not long after they finished, to the disappointment of the ball’s organizers. Unsurprisingly, they they were never invited back to play another one.
Grateful Dead – Nassau Coliseum – 3/15/73
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
The world of the Grateful Dead’s evolved in big ways in the four years following their infamous performance at the Black And White Ball. By then, the Dead had established themselves as one the premier live acts in rock, and they were now headlining arenas with regularity. On this date, they delivered the first of the 42 total headline shows they would go on to play at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, NY. In early 1973, Nassau was a brand-new venue whose primary tenant was the New York Islanders.
The band was moving into a new area of their career now that they had completed their recording contract with Warner Brothers and had decided to start their own label, an unprecedented move by a major band at the time. However, all was not well inside the walls of the camp. Just one week earlier on March 8th, they’d lost their first frontman for good when Pigpen passed away at the age of just 27 from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage brought on by years of heavy drinking and illness that forced him off the road for five months in 1971. After a riotous wake at Weir’s house with hundreds of people and a more subdued funeral afterward, the band stoically loaded out for the trip east and the next tour, and it was neither the first or the last time the band would compartmentalize devastating circumstances and make a quick return to the road.
This excellent show on March 15th contained no fewer than 10 songs in the set that weren’t there on the infamous Europe ’72 tour. There were no fewer than eight new Garcia/Hunter originals, plus a cover of Tammy Wynette’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” to give Donna Godchaux her first opportunities to sing lead. Lesh was also coaxed into performing “Box Of Rain” live in the fall of 1972, two years after its release on 1970’s American Beauty.
In fact, of the 26 songs on offer during the 3/15/73 show, only six had been in the repertoire for more than two years. Three of the “old ones” were Weir-sing covers dating back to the earliest days–”Beat It On Down The Line”, “El Paso”, “Me & My Uncle”–but the other three would be two-thirds of the night’s big jam where “Truckin’” and “The Other One” joined up with new songs “Eyes Of The World” and “China Doll”, along with the night’s closing number, “Casey Jones”. The show’s highlight would be that of the 23-minute “Playing In The Band”, which ended the first set and showcased both Garcia’s inspired guitar improvisation and how Lesh’s bass improvisation would seamlessly intertwine with it.
Grateful Dead – Captial Centre – 3/15/90
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
The next (and last) Phil Lesh birthday show with the Grateful Dead would not happen for another 17 years, when Lesh turned the then-unthinkable-for-a-rock-star age of 50 during the middle night of a three-show run at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD to start the band’s 1990 Spring tour. Along with the Dead’s 1989’s Fall tour, the two latter era runs would prove to be two of the strongest during their final, “Post-Coma” era from 1986 to 1995. The venue was, like Nassau Coliseum, also a mainstay for the band over the years, as they played 29 shows there between 1976 and 1994.
The band would rise to the occasion on this night and deliver one of the three “signature” shows from the Spring 1990 tour–along with March 24th in Albany and March 29th back at Nassau–and presented a perfect snapshot of the Brent Mydland era at its best. Speaking of Brent, the first big highlight of the night was Mydland’s bust-out of “Easy To Love You” just three songs into the show, which was the first original tune he wrote as a member but had not been played live in almost 10 years. The versions of “Walking Blues” and “Althea” in the first set would both end up on the “Without A Net” double-live album, and Phil would sing his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” before Garcia ended the set three songs later with a “Don’t Ease Me In”.
The second set began with a disjointed version of “Happy Birthday To You” by the crowd before tight, focused versions of “China Cat Sunflower”, “I Know You Rider”, and “Samson & Delilah”. “Terrapin Station” would follow and be its usual, majestic self, but on that night the band raised their game further by staying out for a gorgeous eight-minute jam before “Drums”, which was a rarity. As a final bonus, the band would use the encore to bust out their first version of the Beatles’ White Album anthem “Revolution” since 1985.
The Grateful Dead truly rose to the occasion on this night, borne out the fact that this show would become became an official release as “Terrapin Station” only two years after the band called it quits following Garcia’s death in 1995. Aside from the ongoing series of “Dick’s Picks” releases, this was actually the first complete multi-track, complete Grateful Dead show to receive an official release.
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 anyone who has seen him perform live since then has heard the bassist advocate for organ donations before the encore at every show.
“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.
Happy Birthday Phil “Reddy Kilowatt” Lesh!