Once upon a time, I was a young grad student with a nascent love for the Grateful Dead and a head full of semiotics; one result was “Fractals of Familiarty and Innovation,” a bit of academic malarkey that was saved from complete embarrassment only by the fact that the great Robert Hunter deemed it worthy of a witty and gracious response. Over a decade later, what stayed with me aren’t the Fischer-Lichte quotes but the basic creative truth at the core of the essay: how do you keep the music playing? By combining just the right amounts of nostalgia and novelty. The tension between  what’s familiar and what isn’t lies at the heart of all narrative, including musical narrative.

Since Garcia’s death, the remaining members of the Grateful Dead have kept the music alive, but they’ve altered the formula. Bob Weir errs on the side of familiarity. It’s hard to believe, but Ratdog is now a band in its second decade, and on a great night, they soar, as tight as you could wish for. On off nights, it feels like you’ve heard it all a million times before. Intrepid Phil Lesh, on the other hand, likes to mix things up a lot more. The makeup of Phil & Friends changes almost as frequently as the setlist. When it all comes together, their explorations are unmatched–like when he convened a hippie dream band last summer. But the risks are greater, and when Phil’s band doesn’t work, it can cause majestic train wrecks only Deadheads could excuse.

Just recovering from prostate cancer, Phil played two “stealth” shows at a small NYC club this week, with a line-up that was bleeding raw. Two shaky new additions (Steve Molitz of Particle and blues guitarist Larry McCray) were a lot in any case, but when drummer John Molo had to be replaced with two hours notice because of food poisoning, the PLF was truly flying by the seat of their pants–and it came as no surprise that they crashed into shit, botched songs, and ended up outright apologizing for the sloppiness.

But you know what? We liked it anyway. First of all, I’ve never stood this close to Phil while he played St. Stephen, and there are all sorts of human cues you get from ten feet away that you miss in a stadium or summer shed. (Word has it that scalping was rampant for these shows; many tickets went for several hundred dollars; I’ve heard reports of $1700.) Also, it truly is the spirit of the Grateful Dead to try new things with reckless abandon, see where they take you, and have a good time even if they don’t work. McCray was great on Althea, Shakedown, Loser, and Tumbling Dice, and I never thought I’d see the day when Phil raves it up with Steve from Particle in a techno-trance jam complete with squeaky Moog riffs. It definitely was a strange night at SOBs, but like the good doctor said, when the going gets strange, the weird turn pro. I’m sorry I didn’t get to go the second night, when Molo was back and Warren sat in.

Phil Lesh & Friends – SOB’s, NYC – 4/9/07
Set 1: Funky Jam> Birdsong> Althea, Big River, Built To Last, Jam> Let It Ride
Set 2: Shakedown Street, Deal, Loser, Tumbling Dice, Gentlemen Start Your Engines> Spacy Jam> 7 Minutes to Radio Darkness> Elevator, St Stephen> Not Fade Away
E: Turn On Your Lovelight

Here’s that Particle jam from the second set, called Elevator:


If you must, you can download the SOB show from etree, but you’ll be happier watching this video of a much tighter PLF (John Scofield, Joan Osborne, Greg Osby, John Molo, Larry Campbell, Rob Barraco) playing “Help on the Way”