After the Grateful Dead disbanded
following the death of Jerry Garcia
in 1995, Phil toured in 1998 with
The Other Ones, featuring most of
the remaining members of The Dead, on
the Furthur tour. Most recently he
toured with Phil & Friends. In addition to rock music, Phil is a fan
and occasional conductor of classical music.

Phil wrote what may be the most on the nose song ever.

I started listening seriously to The Grateful Dead about 3 or 4 years ago, and the first album I got was American Beauty. At the time, my wife was spending lots of time visting her dad, who was dying of cancer, and Box of Rain seemed to me to be terribly apropos. I spent lots of time listening to it.

Then about a year ago, I learned that Box of Rain was written by Phil Lesh when his father was dying of cancer. He had worked out the whole song, including the vocal phrasing. Took it to Robert Hunter (one of the Dead's lyricists), who sat down and wrote the words "as fast as the pen would pull."

Well, they nailed it perfectly.

By the way, I learned about the history of the song from The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics site, whose location is left as an exercise for Google.

In the more than 35 years since he first picked up an electric bass next to guitarist Jerry Garcia in a band called the Warlocks, Phil Lesh has been through quite a lot. During his 30-year career with the Grateful Dead, Lesh toured the country countless times and helped to create an entire subculture. The deadheads, wearing tie-dyes and smelling of patchouli followed Lesh and the Dead across America and beyond. Now 7 years after the death of Garcia, Lesh is keeping the music of the Grateful Dead alive for the deadhead community he credits with having saved his life.

“There were times when I wasn’t sure I’d be playing music again, or anything else for that matter,” he said.

It was the fall of 98, when Lesh collapsed at home one afternoon. Rushed to the hospital, doctors discovered that he was bleeding internally and that his liver was ruined from hepatitis c. Lesh had known he had the disease since 1991, now he needed a transplant or he would die.

Lesh received the transplant in December 1998. A campaign promoted on the Internet, organized deadheads to “take five minutes for Phil.” During these five minutes deadheads across the globe transmitted their feelings of love and their healing wishes to Lesh.

He credits this energy along with the skilled surgical team, which operated on him as the key factors in his rapid recovery from the operation. 12 hours after the operation he was being helped to walk and six days-latter Lesh checked out of the hospital.

“God bless the salt of the earth, because they saved my life with that energy. If it hadn’t been for them, there might have been complications,” Lesh said.

Lesh had initially returned to the stage, after the breakup of the Grateful Dead and a two-year hiatus from performing, for a series of concerts at small Bay Area music clubs. Joining local musicians, friends and former band-mates from the Grateful Dead, these shows birthed a 1998 summer tour featuring a new band led by Lesh called “The Other Ones.”

Named for the Grateful Dead song “That’s It for the Other One,” the band was an amalgamation of musicians, built around Lesh and the other surviving Grateful Dead members Mickey Hart, Bruce Hornsby and Bob Weir. The Other Ones played a series of shows across the nation, much to the enjoyment of deadheads. It was in September following the tour that Lesh fell ill.

Then this past April Lesh returned to the stage after months of healing and rehabilitation, for three sold-out comeback shows at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. Joined by his “Phriends,” guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell from the popular jam-band Phish, as well as guitarist and Other One band-mate Steve Kimock, Lesh reinvented the Grateful Dead’s overture during nearly 11 hours of performances. They revived songs long out of circulation, like Casey Jones, Cosmic Charlie] and Viola Lee Blues, which had gone unplayed by the Grateful Dead for years and in the case of Viola Lee Blues, decades.

Acclaimed by many in the audience as being some of the best Grateful Dead music they had heard in years, Lesh’s miraculous comeback was celebrated across the deadhead community.

Musically, Lesh found Anastasio and McConnell to be kindred spirits. Ironically, in earlier years, the members of Phish had distanced themselves from the Dead -- put off, no doubt, by the many comparisons to the elder band -- in search of their own identity. Lesh says it only took a day of rehearsal before the shows for them to jump on the material with both feet.

“I really enjoyed their music and their enthusiasm and their energy and I would (play with Anasatsio and McConnell) in a hot minute, anytime we can.” he said.

Lesh’s return to health and to more intimate venues, after the many years of playing some of the largest stadiums across America with the Dead, has had its rewards he explained. He credits his surgery and his near death experience with bringing his extended family of deadheads closer together than it has been, at any time since the Grateful Dead disbanded in 1995.

“They have more regard now for each other and their desire to be together and to do things together is greater than it was before,” said Lesh.

Each night at his comeback shows, Lesh thanked the audience for their help and energy, and the family of the person who’s liver he now has. He also took a minute to ask the audience to consider becoming organ donors and to notify their relatives about the decision in writing. He also reminded the audience of the importance of donating blood.

“It’s not you that’s going to have to make that decision, it’s gonna be your mom or dad or your spouse or sometimes even your children. It’s a traumatic, terrible situation, someone has just died and the doctor is going to come in and say, “would you like to donate this persons organs?” If you have no idea what their desires are, most people are going to say, “certainly not,” said Lesh.

The comeback shows and several other’s Lesh has performed both before and after his surgery have been benefits for the Unbroken Chain Foundation. In December 1997, when Lesh first returned to the stage, it was with a show called “Philharmonium.” This was the first benefit for the Unbroken Chain Foundation, a charitable organization Lesh set up to replace the Grateful Dead’s charity, the Rex Foundation. In the wake of the Dead’s breakup the Rex Foundation had been
left without a source of funding and was unable to continue operating.

During the show, musician friends Eddie Brickell, David Crosby, Bruce Hornsby and others joined Lesh onstage. Essentially the audience became the band during the show. Led by Lesh and the other musicians the audience was divided into tenors, baritones and bass voices. Then they all sang mistral songs, holiday rounds and Grateful Dead classics together.

The show benefited three San Francisco organizations: the Women’s and Children’s Center, the Central City Hospitality House and the Tenderloin Recreation Center, all of which help women and children.

“We were looking to put something back into the community,” he said.
Lesh’s own children and family have always come first in his life and always accompany him on tour. He was planing on driving with them through the canyons of Utah on their way to Denver to start his current tour. He says touring never impacted his attitudes towards parenting and his children.

“It’s important to me that I don’t spend very much time away from them. I really take pride in the fact that we’ve never been apart for more than 10 days. When I was out on the road with the Grateful Dead, if I had a three-week tour they would come out in the middle of it. Now we’ll bring a tutor out with us, when we go on the road and they have to be taken out of school,” said Lesh.

Lesh intends to continue to carry his message about organ donation with him on the Summer Session Tour, which stops in Eugene for two sold-out shows at the Cuthbert Amphitheater on August 17 and 18. Joining Lesh on the tour will be the bands Moe., Galactic, Govt. Mule and the String Cheese Incident. He says they decided to stop in Eugene because the other bands on the tour wanted to, and the Grateful Dead had always enjoyed a great time playing here.

“When I found out there was this little amphitheater there, where people could come and park their boats behind the stadium and catch the show out on the waters, I thought that was a cool thing,” said Lesh.

The idea for the tour started after his surgery when he and his wife became aware of a whole musical subculture of jam-bands inspired by the Grateful Dead.

“98 was a real beginning showing me how flexible and stimulating it could be to play with different people,” he said, referring to his performances prior to his collapse.

His experiences playing with The Other Ones and his “Friends” inspired his current band format in which he plays with different musicians every time he performs. Each night of the Summer Session Tour, various members of the bands accompanying him on the tour will join him and guitarist Steve Kimock onstage. Kimock has played with him at every show since his return from surgery. Lesh affectionately refers to Kimock as “little toaster,” because of his inspired jamming.

“To bring in new musicians and try to reinterpret Grateful Dead material, and open up new doors in it and to go to different spaces, on the whole its been very, very stimulating. And I guess the people really like it because they keep coming back for more,” Lesh said.
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that Lesh starts the Summer Session Tour, at the New Fillmore Theater in Denver this Thursday. The Dead were something of a house band at the Fillmore West in San Francisco during the late 60’s and even owned a stake in the club back when it was known as the Carousel Ballroom. They eventually sold out to Bill Ghram in order to concentrate on their music.

“I’m not interested in playing anything larger than what we are going to be doing on this Summer Session Tour,” Lesh said. “The possibility of real contact, fact-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball contact is so much greater in smaller venues.”

This intimacy has a great impact on the experience of both the musicians and the audience, he said. But all of the audience’s brain waves, all of their soul waves have to be in synch for a transcendental experience to occur.

“Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but when it does, it’s like the collective has opened the door to a transcendental realm, which then moves through us, not just the band but everyone. It’s a circulatory situation, we’re feeding them and they’re feeding us. But the process is originated by something that’s beyond us, something that’s outside of us and our immediate experience. And that’s something that is so hard to find in our culture today. It’s not the same as the mosh-pit,” Lesh said, referring to the tangled mess of people who aggressive slam dance at some punk and hard rock concerts.

Outside of his Phil and Friends concert work Lesh is working on writing a symphonic treatment of the Grateful Dead’s overture.
“It uses Grateful Dead song melodies and chord progressions and rhythmic figures. I’m weaving them all together. I’m using material from 29 Grateful Dead songs and I’m morphing them together and having three or four of them play simultaneously. It’s really interesting. Hopefully I’ll finish that by next June,” said Lesh.

On the Grateful Dead, Lesh said they plan on releasing a box set this fall covering the highlights of their 30-year career. When asked if he felt there was a newfound acceptance of the Dead and their music Lesh hesitated.

“I’m not really aware of any kind of level of acceptance in the mainstream. I’ve never considered us primetime. I’m sort of in a little corner. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the mainstream, let’s put it that way.”

Lesh plans on relaxing after this tour. Plans for a Millennium-eve show are on hold.

“We haven’t really discussed that among the guys in the band. Everybody’s been pretty much doing their own thing and we sort of tacitly agreed to just give it a rest for a while. I personally don’t have any plans for New Years Eve. I think I’m going to do a little retreat, someplace where I can walk home, you know what I mean?”

another episode of: node your homework, all quotes taken from a telephone interview I did with Lesh in the spring of 99.

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