Phil Lesh brought the latest incarnation of his Phil & Friends band for a two-show run at Denver’s Mission Ballroom on February 4th and 5th, 2023. Most recent versions have included Grahame Lesh on guitar and John Molo on drums and for these shows, similar to those at The Warfield in late December, the present lineup included guitarist Rick Mitarotonda of Goose, Jason Crosby on keyboards and violin, and the Trey Anastasio Band horns, Natalie Cressman, Jennifer Hartswick, and James Casey, who also lent their vocal talents to the proceedings.

The first night began with a short, spacey jam that set the exploratory mood for the rest of the weekend by culminating not in a full “Dark Star” but with the entire onstage ensemble asking the audience the question invoked in the main chorus of the song, “Shall we go, you and I while we can, through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?”

The spacey beginning then led into an upbeat, Phil-sung version of “Ripple” that was listed appropriately on the setlist as “Rockin’ Ripple”. The audience was treated to a number of tunes sung sweetly by Rick Mitarotonda on Saturday night and the first of these, a gorgeous “Ship of Fools” followed next. Grahame Lesh then channeled his inner Bob Weir for a fun version of “Jack Straw”.

It is always a treat to hear Phil sing those Grateful Dead tunes that he penned, and night one was a veritable “Phil Fest” in that regard. The first of the three Phil tunes that appeared was rare From the Mars Hotel song, “Pride of Cucamonga”. As evidenced by the roar of the crowd, it was truly a highlight of the first set and featured a wonderful bouncy Rick solo. Next up were a pair of Rick-sung tunes, “China Cat Sunflower” with an ending jam that evolved not into the expected “I Know You Rider” but instead into a shuffling, bluesy “New Speedway Boogie”.

The set then closed with a song that invoked a timely theme that would be revisited throughout the weekend—the passing of a dear friend of Phil and the rest of the Grateful Dead going back to the late 1960s, David Crosby. For this first tribute to Croz, the band played the Crosby-penned Crosby, Stills & Nash tune “Long Time Gone” led initially by Grahame Lesh but with verses passed around among Rick, James Casey, and Jennifer Hartswick. “That was for our friend David,” Lesh said with tears in his eyes as the band went into set break.

The second set led off with a pair of tunes sung by the entire band, first a rollicking “Viola Lee Blues” that eventually led into that “I Know You Rider” that many were expecting in the first set. The TAB horns then left the stage as the remaining members launched into the second of three Phil-penned tunes performed that night, “Unbroken Chain”. That song led into the second Crosby tribute of the night, “Tamalpais High (At About 3)”, a largely instrumental song with just some scat singing, that appeared on his classic 1971 solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. That album of course featured a veritable who’s-who of California’s psychedelic scene including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Jack Casady, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Joni Mitchell, and of course, Phil Lesh.

The Crosby tribute segued directly into “Wharf Rat” sung with great emotion by Grahame Lesh. The band then took the Mission Ballroom on a wild ride of the classic Blues For Allah suite of “Help On The Way” into “Slipknot!” but with a “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” inserted into the proceedings before it ended with a joyous and fun “Franklin’s Tower”.

Just before the encore, Phil noted that it was James Casey’s birthday, and led the audience in a round of “Happy Birthday” as a cake was brought out. Phil then closed out the night with the third of his own tunes and the one that seemed so appropriate in light of James’ birthday and Crosby’s passing, “Box of Rain”.

Phil Lesh & Friends – “Pride Of Cucamonga” – 2/4/23

[Video: starman2112 rush]

Phil Lesh & Friends – “China Cat Sunflower” > “New Speedway Boogie” – 2/4/23

[Video: starman2112 rush]

Phil Lesh & Friends – “Long Time Gone” (Crosby, Stills & Nash) – 2/4/23

[Video: Rev Buddy Greene]

Phil Lesh & Friends – “Viola Lee Blues”, “I Know You Rider” [Pro-Shot] – 2/4/23

Phil Lesh & Friends – “Franklin’s Tower” – 2/4/23

[Video: starman2112 rush]

Phil Lesh & Friends – Mission Ballroom – Denver, CO – 2/4/23 – Full Audio

[Audio: Colorartist]

Setlist: Phil Lesh & Friends | Mission Ballroom | Denver, CO | 2/4/23

Set One: Dark Star [1] > Ripple, Ship of Fools > Jack Straw, Pride of Cucamonga, China Cat Sunflower > New Speedway Boogie, Long Time Gone (Crosby, Stills & Nash)

Set Two: Viola Lee Blues (Cannon’s Jug Stompers), I Know You Rider (Traditional), Unbroken Chain, Tamalpais High (at about 3) (David Crosby), Wharf Rat, Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo > Franklin’s Tower

Encore: Happy Birthday (Mildred J. Hill & Patty Hill), Box of Rain

[1] Chorus only

Click to View Setlist, Videos, and Audio

The second and final night began right out the gate with a raging “Shakedown Street” sung with equal parts sweetness and soul by James Casey. The other two members of the TAB horns, Natalie Cressman and Jennifer Hartswick, then shared vocal duties on a crowd-pleasing “Sugaree”.

Next, it was Grahame’s turn to take lead vocals on a gorgeous and mesmerizing version of “High Time”. Perhaps the pinnacle of the first set was a stunning, jammed-out version of “Deep Elem Blues” with Jennifer Hartswick once again taking lead vocals. Next up was Rick Mitarotonda with a fun version of “Dire Wolf” that gave way to “The Wheel” sung by the entire band. The set closed with another tribute to Phil’s pal, David Crosby, with the song “Laughing”, also off 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name.

The second set saw the audience let out an ecstatic cheer as the first iconic notes of “St. Stephen” rang out. This one took the Mission Ballroom on a long and wild, psychedelic ride that, after the bridge, made an unexpected but inspired detour into the Byrds classic, “Eight Miles High”. Phil kept the spirit of his friend alive as the band lofted along the song penned by Crosby, Roger McGuinn, and Gene Clark when they constituted the central core of The Byrds in 1966.

After veering back into “St. Stephen” for the final verse, Rick Mitarotonda then took over vocal duties on a free-standing version of “Scarlet Begonias”. A brief tuning break gave way to the first unmistakable notes of a slinky jazzy “Eyes of the World” with James Casey once again providing some absolutely spine-chillingly smooth vocals.

Next up was Jennifer Hartswick singing “Stella Blue” but giving the song a bluesy jazz singer vibe that truly made it soar. After an extended ovation from the audience, Grahame next took the mic for a continuation of the exploratory jazzy theme with “Let It Grow”. The song featured solos by Rick and Grahame that complemented and intertwined around one another fabulously.

The set closed with the Terrapin Station suite led initially on vocals by Rick but then taken over by the son and father duo of Grahame and Phil.  To close out a weekend in which the passing of David Crosby was clearly a focal point, the band came out to encore with another song off of If I Could Only Remember My Name, “Music Is Love.” As the tune finished, the mantra, “Music Is Love” was repeated over and over again by the band and audience in unison. It was a poignant reminder that even as some of our greatest musical heroes pass, their art, the music we all cherish, remains, and “Music Is Love”.

Phil Lesh & Friends – “Shakedown Street”, “Sugaree” [Pro-Shot] – 2/4/23

Phil Lesh & Friends – “High Time” – 2/4/23

[Video: Rev Buddy Greene]

Phil Lesh & Friends – “St. Stephen” > “Laughing” (David Crosby) > “St. Stephen” [Pro-Shot] – 2/4/23

Phil Lesh & Friends – “Eyes of the World” – 2/4/23

[Video: David]

Phil Lesh & Friends – Mission Ballroom – Denver, CO – 2/4/23 – Full Audio

[Audio: Colorartist]

Setlist: Phil Lesh & Friends | Mission Ballroom | Denver, CO | 2/5/23

Set One: Shakedown Street, Sugaree, High Time, Deep Elem Blues (Traditional), Dire Wolf, The Wheel, Laughing (David Crosby)

Set Two: St Stephen > Eight Miles High (The Byrds) > St. Stephen, Scarlet Begonias, Eyes of The World, Stella Blue, Let It Grow, Terrapin Station Suite [1]

Encore: Music Is Love (David Crosby)

[1] Lady with a Fan>Terrapin Station > Terrapin Transit > At a Siding > Terrapin Flyer > Refrain

Click to View Setlist, Videos, and Audio

Check out a gallery of images from Phil Lesh & Friends at Mission Ballroom on Sunday courtesy of photographer David Tracer.