Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh on Sunday closed out his second of three October weekends at The Capitol Theatre with a group of Friends featuring Rick Mitarotonda, Grahame Lesh, John Medeski, John Molo, James Casey, Natalie Cressman, and Jennifer Hartswick.
Phil & Friends has long been a project that spans generations in various ways, from direct relation to indirect stylistic connection. Some players, like drummer John Molo (The Other Ones) and guitarist/vocalist Grahame Lesh (Midnight North), Phil’s son, have come to the revolving outfit via personal connection, whether musical or familial. Others, like organ master John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood), have entered the Grateful Dead sphere with Lesh thanks to mutual professional admiration.
Then, there are those who represent the continuation of the story, the players who connect the dots, the ones who embody the contemporary ripples of the Grateful Dead’s infinitely adaptable repertoire.
Take, for example, Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet, vocals), Natalie Cressman (trombone, vocals), and James Casey (saxophone, vocals), known to certain circles as the Trey Anastasio Band horns. The three-piece unit has become a vital ingredient in the Phish guitarist’s solo outfit and, in the process, has put its own mark on a large cache of Phish material. While they don’t necessarily have the Phish sound in their bones, their interpretations have helped expand the boundaries of what the Phish sound can be.
The same could be said of their relationship with the Grateful Dead and their inclusion in this memorable Phil & Friends weekend. Despite a relative lack of experience performing Grateful Dead music, their tangential connection to the band via Anastasio—who famously helmed guitar and vocal duties for Fare Thee Well back in 2015 and has collaborated with Phil and other Grateful Dead members on various occasions—helped solidify this particular match in the eyes of both the musicians and the fans. When it came time to get to work, however, the proof was in the output more than any dot-connecting narrative.
Trombone never really figured into the Dead’s sound, but Natalie Cressman demanded attention with well-placed solos on several numbers on night three. Hartswick, for her part, earned standing ovations from the band and the audience alike with her show-stealing renditions of “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” and “Stella Blue”.
Casey, who is still on the road to full recovery from colon cancer, offered one of Saturday’s biggest highlights with his powerful performance of “Touch of Grey”. On Sunday, he took the lead on another resonant selection, The Beatles‘ “Dear Prudence”. Beneath his earnest delivery, you could hear the genuine emotion in Hartswick and Cressman’s harmonized invitations for their longtime Trey Anastasio Band cohort to “come out to play.” Later, to open the second set, James helmed a unique “Shakedown Street”, pushing the disco Dead favorite down the block toward Soul-Funk City with help from Natalie and Jennifer. Throughout the night, everything they tried seemed to expand preconceived notions of what that song could sound like.
Guitarist Rick Mitarotonda, who rounded out this weekend’s lineup, is much easier to place in the grand web of Dead connections. His band, Goose, has spent the last several years becoming a force to be reckoned with in the modern jam band world—a space unwittingly originated by the Grateful Dead more than half a century ago. Even beyond regularly covering Dead songs (including “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, which he sang with Phil on Sunday), the 31-year-old Mitarotonda has proven his ability to play in the same sandbox as his heroes. Next month, Goose will head out on a joint tour with Trey Anastasio Band, providing yet another indirect connection within this Phil & Friends lineup.
Rick never seemed like anything but a worthy choice on Sunday as he elevated live Dead go-to’s like “New Speedway Boogie”, “Jack-A-Roe”, “U.S. Blues”, and “Turn On Your Love Light” with his distinctive voice and bright-eyed/bushy-tailed presence. When he wasn’t singing lead, he was firing off creatively phrased guitar leads or exploring tasteful interplay with Medeski and Grahame or pushing Phil’s complex basslines further outside the lines.
Like the best Jerry Garcia stand-ins, he remained thoroughly reverent to the big shoes he was filling while styling them with his own unique hues. That individuality was perhaps most apparent on a second set cover of Otis Redding‘s “Hard to Handle”. While the song made various haphazard live appearances in the early years of the Grateful Dead, it largely fell out of rotation by 1971. With Mitarotonda at the helm, it became a highlight of the show. From his smooth vocals to a deep improvisational tangent to a triumphant return to the final verse, this rendition was alive with possibility—new appreciation for an old chapter in the story, another tangle in the Grateful Dead web—and that possibility came courtesy of the guy from Goose.
Phil Lesh & Friends – “Hard To Handle” [Pro-Shot] – 10/23/22
All the while, Phil Lesh exerted his magnetic pull on the crowd even as he hung back to let his youthful bandmates shine. The bassist grinned throughout the night as he went toe-to-toe with his younger counterparts, matching their intensity with ingenuity of his own. When he took his turns at the mic—on his signature “Unbroken Chain” and an unusually rocking “Ripple” encore—the eyes pointed at him from the crowd were just as adoring as the ones watching from the stage.
Scroll down to watch a selection of pro-shot videos and listen to audience audio from Sunday’s Phil Lesh & Friends performance at The Capitol Theatre. Phil’s October residency continues this coming weekend with a new group of Friends. For details and ticketing info, head here.
Phil Lesh & Friends – “New Speedway Boogie”, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” [Pro-Shot] – 10/23/22
Phil Lesh & Friends – “Shakedown Street” [Pro-Shot] – 10/23/22
Phil Lesh & Friends – The Capitol Theatre – 10/23/22 – Full Audio
Setlist: Phil Lesh & Friends | The Capitol Theatre | Port Chester, NY | 10/24/22
Set One: New Speedway Boogie (RM), Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo (RM), Wharf Rat (GL), Dear Prudence (JC), Jack-A-Roe (RM), That’s What Love Will Make You Do (JH), U.S. Blues (RM)
Set Two: Shakedown Street (JC), Mason’s Children (All), Hard to Handle (RM), Estimated Prophet (GL), Unbroken Chain (PL), Stella Blue (JH), Turn On Your Love Light* (RM)
Encore: Ripple (PL)
Notes: The band featured Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), Rick Mitarotonda (guitar, vocals), Grahame Lesh (guitar, vocals), James Casey (saxophone, vocals), Natalie Cressman (trombone, vocals), Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet, vocals), John Medeski (keys, organ, vocals), John Molo (drums). Singers for each song are noted with their initials.
*with Jessica, Mountain Jam teases