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In the early 1960’s, a young Jerry Garcia approached Phil Lesh amid the new psychedelic music scene in San Francisco. Garcia was looking for a bass player and extended an invitation for Lesh to join a group called the Warlocks. Lesh accepted the invitation as the band soon altered their name to the Grateful Dead. The Dead became the house band for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters evolving into a pioneering entity of acid rock in the midst of the sixties counterculture. The evolution and progression of The Dead continued over the decades as members of the band came and went their own ways. As a group, they demonstrated an unparalleled passion for touring and playing live, which attracted a dedicated foundation of fans known as Deadheads. Unfortunately, for the world of music and for the Deadheads, Jerry Garcia died in 1995 leaving the remaining band members to scatter their own ways. Although the remaining members reunited for short stints honoring the nostalgic folklore the Grateful Dead left behind, most like Phil Lesh, began solo projects to occupy their time.
Phil Lesh and Friends follow in this sequence of evolution searching to revitalize and reinterpret classical Grateful Dead material. Lesh has invited numerous musicians to experiment and play within his band including Bob Dylan, former Grateful Dead members, Phish, and the String Cheese Incident to name a few. Many other performers spent short spells of time with Lesh, but the revolving door of band members ceased with the current members of Phil Lesh and Friends. The band has progressed with a newfound cohesion and musical understanding amongst members Phil Lesh, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, Rob Barraco, John Molo, and lyricist Robert Hunter who wrote many of the Grateful Dead songs with Jerry Garcia. With their recently released studio debut “There and Back Again” new material along with revisited Dead tunes have been blended into a rejuvenated formula. The 2002 summer tour is named after the new record and brought Deadheads of old and new to Hershey Star Pavilion.
The band strolled onto the stage under a light rain as thousands of fans appeared undeterred by the seemingly inevitable thunderstorm. After some smiles and a few minutes of casually adjusting equipment the band overcame the sound of whistles and applause with a lively rendition of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues”. As the still growing crowd pushed chairs away from the stage in order to create dancing room, Jorma Kaukonen was invited onto stage. Jorma, a former member of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna accented Herrings lead as the band weaved into “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”. This version brought cheers as “standing in Hershey in the rain” was substituted into the lyrics. The remaining portion of the first set continued with “Ramble on Rose” and long, intertwining jams that kept the pavilion swaying while showcasing the guitar playing talents of Herring, Lesh, and Haynes. All three are extremely talented musicians with distinct styles. Herring is a former member of the Allman Brothers, while Haynes is a current member of both the Allman Brothers and Govt Mule. Haynes’ clear voice and glass slide provided an unmistakable sound while the strong bass undercurrent set down by Lesh allowed Herring to lead with some classy solos. The crowd perked up with cheers when the jams would break a beat or drop a familiar guitar rift announcing the introduction of old favorites such as “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, “China Cat Sunflower”, and “Slipknot” all of which morphed together towards the finale of the first set “Franklin’s Tower”, which moved the masses into gleeful dancing across the now rain soaked pavilion.
As the intermission pushed thousands towards the bathrooms and beer booths, it was difficult to avoid the hordes of happy faces and the counterculture–like environment. It seemed as if, for those few hours, an extension had been granted prolonging the counterculture of the Sixties throughout the Star Pavilion. Many of the psychedelically dressed personalities seemed old enough to be wise veterans of the scene, while much younger individuals appeared as free spirits searching for the freedom that the psychedelically inspired counterculture provided. From the perspective of some, these young beatniks would be considered out of place or idealistic tree huggers fascinated with the lure of a past era. It would not be wrong to assume, but that assumption becomes a distorted stereotype to people just seeking an experience outside the realm of normality. However, an incident during the show lends evidence that some of the young followers are merely lost in a utopian dream. As police looked onward, a group of nearly 500 fans surged through a cut security fence on the outskirts of Star Pavilion. Police successfully restrained the crowd without injuries in the near riot conditions, but were forced to make arrests. One man was arrested for jumping on the back of a police officer and another 23 year old woman was arrested for inciting a riot as she yelled, “Attica, Attica!” referring to 1971 New York state prison riot and massacre…hardly a similar situation.
The incident did not affect the atmosphere of the show, because most fans were oblivious to its occurrence. Instead the majority of spectators were wondering what songs would surface next from the band’s titanic reservoir of material. The band regrouped and kicked off the second set with “Viola Lee Blues” as the sunset peaked through the clouds and darkness shrouded the amphitheater. The highlight of the second set was the middle portion beginning with “Bertha” and then a three-song jam that began with the “Real Thing” showcasing Warren Haynes voice and lyrics. Haynes’ crisp, clear lyrics subsided into the night as the jam weaved into “The Wheel” and “I Know You Rider” all the while complimented by some tremendous background lighting and impeding laser lights from the neighboring laser show at Hersherpark. The 3 ½ hour set ended with applause after “Sugaree” as Lesh and fellow band mates hugged and waved graciously.
Phil came onto the stage before the encore to accept a local award and also thanked the crowd for being “a nice community”. The sixty-two year old also urged the crowd to donate organs when given the choice, because without a liver transplant Lesh would not of survived his bout with Hepatitis C. Shortly after his quick talk the remaining members came back to the stage for an encore of the renewed Dead cover “Liberty”.
During the encore I thought, sure maybe Phil Lesh and Friends jam a little too much, sometimes leaving the crowd in a state of wonderment about the direction of the jam. But that is the reason they are different. That is the reason people go to see them, traveling across the country to see what they will do next. Phil Lesh has managed to open new doors to old music in hopes of finding closure to his time with the Grateful Dead and the interpretation of their music. The show transcended an unmistakable optimism unique among the fraternity of musicians and fans wrapped up in the enduring scene of the jamming Sixties. Phil Lesh and Friends have merged nearly forty years of progression into a rehabilitated experience. It is hard to imagine the distinctive environment created in the tradition of the Grateful Dead could be extinct in years to come. With many of the notable musicians of the Sixties growing in age, it seems like a probable scenario. Where else will we be able to hear 3 ½ hours of free flowing energy and score a vegan burrito for less than $3 in the parking lot after the show…..??