Since opening Terrapin Crossroads just over a year ago, Phil Lesh has played with an impressive roster of musicians, most of whom had at most one degree of separation from the Dead community and many of whom had played in previous Phil and Friends lineups. Thus it seemed a somewhat audacious move to bring in top-drawer blues-rock guitarists Luther Dickinson and Anders Osborne for the three-night Spring Ramble run. Although Osborne and Dickinson have played together on numerous occasions, they had, to my knowledge, not previously shared a stage with Lesh, nor were dead tunes a significant part of their own performance repertoires. Rounded out by drummer Tony Leone, multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby at the keyboard chair, and Grahame Lesh on acoustic and electric guitars, this combo whipped out what is easily some of the most exciting and energetic music played yet in Lesh’s Grate Room.
For the Friday show, the group opened with “Deal,” a regular part of the repertoire of Txr lineups, but it has never sounded like this before. After Leone sang the first verse, Dickinson, bouncing and gyrating, took two stunning choruses of clean, jazzy licks before yielding to Crosby, who pulled out some equally inspired barrelhouse piano on his Kurzweil synthesizer, after which Dickinson took another solo, with Leone finally getting to the second verse at about the six minute mark. Then it was Osborne’s turn to deliver a loud, blistering solo, after which Dickinson, Lesh and Osborne closed ranks to form a huddle while crafting furiously intertwining melodies After about thirteen minutes, the group gradually moved out of Deal, developing a frenetic minor key passage with Dickinson shredding on his hollow body Gibson , which he eventually surrendered to a curious handmade two-string guitar that has a coffee can as a resonator to move into a jittery instrumental figure that eventually evolved into his singing a raunchy version of “Rolling and Tumbling.”, at one point using the coffee can as a microphone. Grahame Lesh, who had by this point surrendered his Martin to a Gibson SG, took his own solo, with Osborne effortlessly laying on some harmonies, leading into another instrumental huddle between Dickinson (back on his Gibson), Phil, and Osborne. As the pace slowed and the music morphed into “Friend of the Devil” I glanced at my watch and noted that the first two songs had lasted half an hour.
The Dead and most Phil and Friends ensembles don’t move around a lot on stage, but this group was a kinetic force to be reckoned with, particularly Dickinson, who used his playful facial experssions and gyrations to pair up with each of the band members at times during the show, egging them on to put out even more energy. Osborne was no slouch either, another intrinsically physical player who uses his whole body to pull the last ounce of emotion out of his two Stratocasters. His Swedish by way of Louisiana drawl brought a unique, gritty flavor to “Friend of the Devil.” After another long instrumental passage, Dickinson sang a version of the North Mississippi Allstars shuffle “How I Wish My Train Would Come” that contrasted with most of the rest of the evening’s music by featuring no guitar solos. Grahame Lesh has grown remarkably as a singer and instrumentalist during the year Terrapin has been open, and his take on “Brown Eyed Women” was crisp and confident, bolstered by some more fine guitar playing by Dickinson and particularly Osborne, who concluded the instrumental break with a spectacular slide crescendo that went on and on. Osborne’s gritty bottleneck version of “Big Boss Man” owed more to Jimmy Reed’s original than the versions done, and featured some soulful Jimmy Reed style B-3 organ from Crosby, The first set concluded with an energized “Bertha” with Grahame Lesh taking the lead vocal again, and featuring another sizzling slide solo from Osborne.
The second set began with a long relatively free form, jazzy jam, with Crosby on organ, Leone providing a percussive bedrock, Grahame using his effects pedals to pull out weird sounding chords, and Phil and the guitarists alternating solos. This jamming carried for a good 20 minutes, through various moods and tempos, with brief references to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” before abruptly dropping into a slow, ponderous rendition of “Down By The River, sung with gusto by Osborne. Dickinson picked up the pace with a bouncy NOLA shuffle, “Mean Old Wind Die Down,” that featured some more great rippling piano from Crosby. Taking things up yet another notch, Phil took his first lead vocal of the evening, driving the band into “Franklin’s Tower” with the two guitarists continuing to move further afield with highly melodic playing that deviated defiantly but appropriately from the song’s simple melody. Without skipping a beat, the ensemble drove into “Scarlet Begonias” sung by Grahame and embellished by a gorgeous slide solo from Osborne. As the song concluded, the music devolved into more weirdness, emerging in a slow, arpeggiated descending progression that eventually wound its way into the spare, mysterious chords of Osborne’s second Neil Young cover of the night, “Cortez the Killer.” To wind up the set, the band plowed straight on into “New Speedway Boogie,” which built into a couple of dramatic instrumental crescendos, then returning to the song’s concluding line “This darkness has got to give.” After nearly two hours of uninterrupted playing, the band exited the stage, exchanging multiple hugs and fist bumps that evidenced the ensemble’s mutual satisfaction with what they had created. The encore, a long version of “Fire On the Mountain” was a showcase for Osborne’s growling vocals and dirty lead guitar.
Two things made this ensemble special. First, there were truly no weak links. Leone has grasped the tension between looseness and precision that makes the Dead’s music work, and Crosby is a fine, versatile keyboardist willing to lead as well as provide elegant instrumental support. Grahame Lesh’s confidence has grown by leaps and bounds, and his contributions on guitar and vocals were substantial. Secondly, in Dickinson and Osborne, the elder Lesh has found two guitarists who are aggressive lead and slide players, but with the taste and creativity to go toe to toe with him while taking the music in new directions without subverting its spirit. Phil, always up for a musical challenge, seemed to relish the challenge these players brought, and the chemistry between him and the two guitarists, and especially Osborne, was palpable, and elevated the musical conversation to a very high level. Let’s hope they do this again soon.