Why Phil needs Joan

Phil Lesh
“For me, comfort is a slow death,” says Phil Lesh.

The Grateful Dead are dead. Long live the Dead.

It’s now been almost 11 years since the Grateful Dead broke up following the death of Jerry Garcia — the band’s lead guitarist, primary singer and, as the cliche goes, “spiritual leader.” But that hasn’t kept the surviving members of the Dead from continuing to hit the road, in one incarnation or another, to carry on the Dead’s musical legacy — and often, to take the Dead’s music to new places that the original band might never have considered.

Almost every year between ’98 and 2004, the re-formed Dead toured under some appellation — calling themselves The Other Ones for a few years before reclaiming the essence of their original moniker when they switched to The Dead in 2003.

The Dead hasn’t toured since ’04, however, so lately, it’s been up to its two primary splinter bands — Phil Lesh & Friends and Ratdog — to carry on that legacy, in very distinct ways, each putting their singular spin on Dead Music. The first is led by Dead bassist Phil Lesh. The other, Ratdog, is helmed by the Dead’s second guitarist, Bob Weir, and both have recruited liberally from various incarnations of The Other Ones and the Dead. For example, for the current tour, which comes to the Civic Center on Tuesday, Lesh has added Joan Osborne back into the fold – a reprise of her ’03 stint with The Dead.

Joan Osborne
Learning Dead songs, says Joan Osborne, was a kind of “boot camp.” photo by Jimmy Lenner Jr.

At the same time, Lesh likes to keep re-interpreting Dead music by rotating the band’s line-up, often reaching outside of the Dead scene to tap new players. Last fall, he recruited the brilliant Larry Campbell, who tore it up in Bob Dylan’s band for several years in the late ’90s/early ’00s, to fill one guitar slot. And when the tour comes to Asheville, the other guitarist will be John Scofield, a jazz player of amazing proficiency who can also cross over into fusion and R&B.

And for those Deadheads who’ve grumbled about the sometimes shaky vocal performances during the last couple of tours by The Dead/Phil & Friends, the most exciting news is that Osborne is back on board. In ’03, her sensual, provocative, and, yes, feral voice lent the band the kind of vocal power it hadn’t enjoyed in years — if ever.

“Oh, I don’t know that we ever lacked vocal power,” insists Lesh in a recent interview. “Jerry’s voice had a lot of emotional power, and it was one of the glories of American music. It was so unique, so full of character, and spirit, and the tenderness that you really want from a singer.”

Garcia’s voice did indeed have a plaintive, bittersweet quality that made it the perfect instrument for rendering his timeless-Americana melodies — along with Robert Hunter’s lyrics, which were alternately wry, wistful or flat-out surreal. And Garcia always delivered those qualities in the studio — and, in the early and middle years, on stage as well.

As time went on, however, his on-stage vocal delivery was often frail or faint, depending on what kind of shape he was in on any given night.

“But Joan definitely brings that gutsy, bluesy R&B feel that we had with Pigpen,” agrees Lesh, referring to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the Dead’s resident blues head from their mid-’60s beginning until he died in ’73.

Osborne laughs good-naturedly about her “blues mama/hippie chick” image, which seemingly made her “a natural” for inclusion in the Dead scene.

“But, yeah, that’s where I started, singing the blues — Etta James, Koko Taylor, all that stuff,” says Osborne, who concedes that she wasn’t a Deadhead before joining The Dead for the ’03 tour. “I knew some of the material, but I really had to learn a lot of it in a hurry. With the band changing the set list every night, I had to learn several new songs every day — I joked that it was ‘Grateful Dead Camp,’ like boot camp.

“So I learned in a hurry just how much great material they had.”

Osborne says her favorite Dead songs to sing are “‘Morning Dew,’ ‘New Speedway Boogie’ and the close-harmony vocals on songs like ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘Eyes of the World.'”

Here for the party

However, as much as Osborne has improved the vocal blend, most Deadheads really don’t go to The Dead, Phil & Friends or Ratdog for the singing. They go for the musical adventurism and the heady, without-a-net improvisations. Which is where the new guitarists come in. (When Scofield leaves after the Asheville date to do his solo tour, he’ll be replaced by pedal-steel player Barry Sless, a veteran of the David Nelson Band, an offshoot of yet another “Dead family” band — New Riders of the Purple Sage.) “But when Scofield leaves, we’ll be adding Greg Osby on sax, so we’ll still have that jazz element,” notes Lesh.

Recruiting players from two different sub-genres was an inspired choice, and it will help Lesh take The Dead’s music to new, surprising places, something the Grateful Dead could be counted on to do on a nightly basis in the early and middle years — but not nearly so much near the end. The upside of playing off of Garcia and Weir for so long is that they all developed a sort of telepathy that guided them when one took off on a spontaneous improvisational flight.

The downside was that, after 30 years, the interplay became more predictable.

“Yeah, that’s true. I’ve always been about collective improvisation, and we definitely had that for a long time, but the longer we played together, it got harder and harder to do,” concedes Lesh. “It could still happen on any given night, which is why I stayed. But it did happen less often. I want to be challenged when I play. I don’t want to be comfortable up there — for me, ‘comfort’ is like a slow death.”

Although Campbell and Scofield had only played a few shows together at the time of this interview, Lesh was knocked out by what he heard. “They’re like a couple of eagles up there,” he effuses. “One will go soaring in one direction, and the other will fly alongside him, like they’re flying in formation, then one will break off, and go twisting in another direction — then they’ll come back and do loops around each other.”

Recruiting a roots-rock guy and a jazz-fusion guy is a change-up from the past, when Lesh turned to guitarists from similar jam-band backgrounds. (Previous Phil & Friends guitarists were Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, and Jimmy Herring, from the Aquarium Rescue Unit and Frogwings.) “After a while, I found that the jam-band guys sometimes played Dead music a little too similarly, and too reverently,” says Lesh.

“I wanted it to be dangerous again.”

Lately, Lesh has also tapped into a source that evokes the Dead’s country-folk side — the music of Ryan Adams. The band has added at least 10 Adams songs to its repertoire over the last year or so, and it makes sense. It only took one listen to Cold Roses, Adams’ ’05 release, to think, “Well, this guy has definitely been listening to American Beauty.”

“Yeah, that was something, wasn’t it?” says Lesh with a laugh, clearly delighted that a young artist like Adams would wear the Dead’s influence on his sleeve as gleefully as Adams did on Cold Roses. “I just fell in love with the guy — he reminds me of the way we were when we were young. Ryan’s whole life is an improvisation. When he’s on stage, he changes up his own songs even more than the Dead ever did — sometimes even more than Dylan, who really likes to mix his songs up on stage …”

American beauty

In a bit of simpatico, Osborne also finds herself currently leaning in a country direction. The last few months, she’s been in Nashville working on a country album of her own, produced by Steve Buckingham, who’s worked with Alison Krauss in recent years.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” enthuses Osborne. “Some of it is inspired by that early-’70s Kris Kristofferson/Linda Ronstadt style of country music, when they were mixing country and rock. But on some of it, the production style is more like ’50s/’60s classic country, and there’s also some of that Appalachian influence that Emmylou Harris had on her early records. I also do a country version of ‘Brokedown Palace.'”

She’s also flexing her country-rock affinity in the Phil & Friends shows by handling vocals on some of the Adams tunes, like “‘Magnolia Mountain,’ ‘Sweet Carolina’ and a new one called ‘Desire,'” says Osborne.

Vocal duties in Phil & Friends have reportedly been passed around fairly equally among Lesh, Osborne, Campbell and keyboardist Rob Baracco. This sort of democracy may reflect a truly ’60s-style communal spirit — but it does seem a bit perverse to relegate a singer of Osborne’s power to being “one of many” — especially when, as a singer, she can clearly blow the others’ doors off. Some Deadheads, and some critics — like this one — believe a singer of Osborne’s prowess should be handling 80 percent of the lead-vocal chores in this line-up.

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