Phil Lesh’s Road to Mountain Jam kicked-off with a special night featuring Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen at Port Chester, NY’s The Capitol Theater. The Dead-friendly venue packed a sold-out crowd in to appreciate this legendary collaboration.
The five-piece band got things building with an intro jam that allowed Kaukonen to warm up his bright guitar tone before they jumped into a happy “Here Comes Sunshine”, led on vocals by Dark Star Orchestra keyboardist Rob Barraco. Phil Lesh then took over lead vocals on the Dead traditional staple “Cold Rain and Snow”. Kaukonen’s controlled, clean Hot Tuna style turned into some real Jefferson Airplane-esque shredding as he and Barraco soloed together to hit one of the best jams of the set.
Next, former Bruce Hornsby and the Range drummer and longtime “Friend” of Phil Lesh, John Molo, shined on a bouncy “Loose Lucy” before they slowed things back down on a “Bird Song” with Phil’s talented son Grahame Lesh showing off his slide guitar chops.
Kaukonen sang lead vocals for the first time with an unexpected take on “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf. His raspy, soulful voice fit this tune perfectly as fans cheered when he came up to the mic. The Hot Tuna legend picked an incredible bluesy solo, but Grahame matched it with a roaring jam of his own. The contrast between the two musicians was striking, echoing when Phil Lesh plays with John Kadlecik and John Scofield on dueling lead guitars.
The band moved on to the Dead’s Go to Heaven hit “Alabama Getaway”, where Grahame Lesh got to take the reins on lead singing for the first time of the night. After a few rocking verses, he tried to repeat the chorus and commence the ending to the song while the rest of the band went to dive into another jam. He laughed it off while Phil gave him that loving father head shake of amused disapproval and the miscue created a charming, crowd-pleasing moment.
Kaukonen then dug into the familiar opening guitar lick of the Pigpen classic “Operator” off the Dead’s American Beauty. Committed music fans clapped as they realized how special it was to see a founding member of Jefferson Airplane singing a Grateful Dead song that is rarely played live with Phil Lesh. They closed the first set with the Dead staple and Wilson Pickett song “In the Midnight Hour”. Barraco channeled his inner Brent Mydland on this one with raspy and metallic vocals complemented by powerful organ solos.
The second set began even tighter than the first, opening with a groovy “Playing in the Band”. They wove that into Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, where they got into some dark musical tones and Kaukonen hit his hardest jam of the night. He turned on a Scofield-like distortion effect and shredded all over the neck of the guitar before passing the lead to Grahame Lesh who picked up the tempo and led the group into “Viola Lee Blues”. This was the rowdiest jam of the evening, augmented by some impressive drumming by Molo.
Phil backed away and allowed Kaukonen to be the center of attention on the eerie “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”. Originally a Reverend Gary Davis song—and part of the Dead catalog—this song has also been a staple in Hot Tuna’s repertoire and was released on their 1970 self-titled album.
Phil picked the tempo back up with “New Speedway Boogie” and provided the audience with a sing-along to “One way or another / this darkness has got to give.” He cut off the band and let the audience fade out by shouting the lyrics without musical accompaniment which put a huge smile on Kaukonen’s face.
Fans continued to sing along with a fast-paced “I Know You Rider” before the band jumped back into a reprise of “Playing in the Band”. It seemed like the end of the set, but the guys rolled along with “The Wheel” and “Liberty”.
The evening concluded with another Dylan cover oin “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, a beautiful ending to a tightly-played musical evening. Graham Lesh continues to evolve as a guitarist and is becoming a real treat to see live, Barraco and Molo were stars as always, and Kaukonen offered a fresh musical perspective to the Dead sound. Phil Lesh and Friends are back at the Capitol Theater tonight (Wednesday, 6/12) with Kaukonen before taking the stage at Mountain Jam in Bethel, NY on Saturday.
Watch part of the band’s performance of their opening number from Tuesday’s first set below:
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Scroll down to check out the gallery of images captured throughout Tuesday’s performance, courtesy of photographer Andrew Blackstein.
Setlist: Phil Lesh & Friends with Jorma Kaukonen | The Capitol Theatre | Port Chester, NY | 6/11/2019
Set One: Here Comes Sunshine, Cold Rain and Snow (traditional cover), Loose Lucy, Bird Song, Smokestack Lightning (Howlin’ Wolf cover), Alabama Getaway, Operator, In the Midnight Hour (Wilson Pickett cover)
Set Two: Playing in the Band, All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan cover), Viola Lee Blues (Cannon’s Jug Stompers cover), Death Don’t Have No Mercy (Reverend Gary Davis cover), New Speedway Boogie, I Know You Rider (traditional cover), Playing in the Band, The Wheel, Liberty (Robert Hunter cover)
Encore: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan cover)