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July 11, 2006

The music never stopped: Phil Lesh & friends will gather at The Palace

Phil LeshFor 30 years, Phil Lesh functioned as the bass player for the legendary Grateful Dead. The Dead were conceived in 1965 in the now-mythical Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. In fact, it was then and there that Lesh, a classically trained composer, first experimented with the bass guitar. As he recalled during a recent interview, “Jerry Phil Lesh invited me to try my hand at it, and I wanted to join the band real bad, so I probably would have learned any instrument just to be involved. It sounds pretentious, I know, but I tried to bring a real musicality to rock ’n’ roll bass.”From the beginning, the Dead were not your run-of-the-mill rock ’n’ roll outfit. They successfully married a number of musical styles into one cohesive sound held together by elaborate jams. But there was also something deeper at work. “We sort of set ourselves up as leaders of a spiritual movement in as much as religion originally meant a binding together of people,” Lesh says. “We brought folks together in an atmosphere where they didn’t have to worry about being anything other than themselves. Joseph Campbell Phil Lesh actually called the Grateful Dead and our extended scene ‘the antidote to the atom bomb and its culture of fear.’”Over the years, the Dead were prolific enough in the studio, but they primarily made their reputation as a live band. Their fans, known as Deadheads, were fiercely loyal, often traveling great distances to see the band perform. And importantly, there were always officially sanctioned taping sections set up at each venue the band played. Legions of tapers documented Dead performances for posterity and were encouraged to trade their recordings freely. Lesh proclaims that such a policy was a damn good career move.“Phil Lesh absolutely key to our career … probably the smartest move we ever made in terms of reaching a wider audience.”Even now, file-sharing doesn’t seem to bother him. Lesh’s attitude is this: “Hey, like it or not, it gets the music out there and, really, it’s the suits rather than the artists who have the most to lose from it. It’s certainly a trade-off, but in the end, I’m down with it,” he says.When Garcia died in the summer of 1995, the Grateful Dead were officially put to rest. Since that time, Lesh has busied himself with a variety of projects. He set up a service-oriented non-profit organization known as the Unbroken Chain Foundation. He was even involved briefly in the world of drama, portraying, appropriately enough, a mythical underworld figure in a low-budget production. Last year he released his first book, “Searching for the Sound,” a memoir of his Dead experiences. And most recently, Lesh has immersed himself in academia. Next year he will be the composer in residence at Stanford University, and will also co-teach a history course on the 1960s at his son’s high school. And there have been higher-profile endeavors for Lesh. He’s occasionally hit the road with former Dead bandmates under temporary monikers. And he annually assembles a loose confederation of like-minded musician friends for a rigorous round of touring. Lesh insists he likes to be spontaneous about who is in his band at any given time. “There is no short list of potentials. I always just sorta bump into people that I’d like to play with in the future and it usually works out,” he says. These days, Lesh commercially releases soundboard quality recordings of every live show, but don’t expect him to return to the studio anytime soon.“I’ve never liked the studio experience or making records for some big company,” he says. “I’m more into the originality and freshness of every new performance.”There is, apparently, one notable exception in this realm. “If Ryan Adams, who to me is like a little brother with immeasurable talent,” Lesh says, “if he were to approach me about producing me in the studio or even just sitting down to write some songs together, I would do it in a minute.”What the future ultimately holds for Lesh remains to be seen. He says that for now, “It’s just good to be vertical and in the company of family and friends.”Contact the writer at leobeat@leoweekly.com