Saturday night, Phil Lesh and Friends closed out their three-night Colorado run with a final stop at the picturesque Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colorado. Following two magical nights in Dillon and Vail, the group concluded the transcendental trifecta to a sold-out crowd under a near full moon, clear skies, and perfect temperatures. Phil’s friends this time around consisted of his progeny Grahame Lesh, guitar guru Stu Allen, skin wizard John Molo, and the explosive, talented, and tasteful Holly Bowling. At 81 years young, Lesh consistently lead the pack with his low-end domination, showing that he is still a force to be reckoned with and no one is waiting around for him to catch up. Combined, this five-headed beast produced nearly three hours of music over two great sets and reminded many fans that the Grateful Dead magic is alive, well, and worth every mile driven to catch it.
Set one began with a strong, upbeat “Mississippi Half Step” and it was apparent from the get-go that the band needed no warmup. Phil’s vocals sounded great and, from Bowling’s tasty B-3 work to Grahame’s slide improv, the sound was dialed in from the start. Next, the gritty “West L.A. Fadeaway” came without delay, showcasing the vocal and guitar dynamics of Mr. Stu Allen. The midsection saw some great interplay between Stu’s eerie slide work and Bowling’s organ fills as the tune expanded and hinted at the weird. Taking the tempo up a notch, “Till the Morning Comes” took off with its authentic 60’s vibe. It was great to see so many heads singing along to this B-side track, showing that the decades-long love runs deep and true.
Slowing things a bit, an emotional and powerful “So Many Roads” gave everyone a moment to reflect. For those who saw Garcia perform this tune, it was great to hear Stu sing this with comparable verve. Bowling’s spinning of the Leslie in the big finish also delivered a visceral wave of bittersweet emotion. A Lesh-led “Crazy Fingers” followed, sang by both father and son, and kept with the spirit of the preceding number. Phil’s use of the higher register here lifted the tune and showed his continued ability, desire, and talent to diversify. Bowling utilized a classic piano sound throughout and her solo was audibly appreciated by the crowd. Molo’s drum work on a tune with such an odd timing was impeccable and revealed that this guy just keeps getting better with age, as both an instigator as well as listener.
As the tune wound down into transition, the recognizable intro rift of “Deal” lifted the mood and got everyone back up to getting down. Again, Bowling demonstrated her work ethic with that classic ragtime piano sound and attacked her extended solo to the joy of everyone within earshot. This version rollicked with the best of them and elicited huge smiles between the band members, growing ever wider with the big fanfare as Grahame and Stu fanned their axes and took great satisfaction in the aural jubilation created from their literal fingertips. In the end, set one totaled out at 70 minutes and left many wondering, especially those who had been present for the two nights prior, what goodies Uncle Phil and Company had in store to close out the Colorado mini tour.
As the near full moon set the visual slowly creeping over the riverside cottonwoods, the band returned for the second set. Toying with tuning and feedback, the group eventually gave way to silence, as Allen, Lesh, and Lesh stepped to their respective microphones and looked out over the darkened crowd. The trio then proceeded to sing acapella and in its normal timing the “Dark Star” lyrics from verse one: “Shall we go, you and I while we can / Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds”. This first time change from the standard canon delivery ignited the audience into a gleeful frenzy of catcalls, laughter, and applause. The band followed suit and expectation with exploratory instrumentation and rolled out ten solid minutes of psychedelic interplay before returning to the lyrical portion of the unfinished verse. Once again, the stringed sons sang, each taking one of the opening three lines of the verse, but when the aforementioned acapella lyrics were reached in the reading, the band fell silent, playing only the music and smiling on as again, the audience took great delight in yet another alteration of the beloved tune.
After a few measures of the dreamy feel surrounding the lyrical component, Molo accelerated the tempo, and everyone jumped right on the back of his train. Operating as a unified driving force, the group moved the crowd for multiple minutes through a solid throw down of dancing before slowing the pace once again, dissolving into discord and eventually settling into an upbeat “Eyes of the World”. With Allen at the lyrical helm, the band took off with the crowd singing along. At the close of the initial stanza, Bowling was up first for solos and delivered an otherworldly fast but extended solo that made her sound as though she had been graced with 12, maybe even 14, digits. The solo was significant enough that both Phil and Allen turned stage right at its conclusion, grinning from ear to ear, as the crowd erupted with props thrown the keying wonder’s way. The band stretched the “Eyes” out for 12 minutes and packed it full of significant shredding and exchanges before returning for the second half of “Dark Star”.
Where the verse one section certainly played more on the head of the tune, the coda dove more through space before reaching the second stanza. Once again, Lesh, Allen, and Lesh rotated lines, before unifying on the lyric “Shall we go while we can…” and finishing the rest of the stanza together. Between both verses of “Dark Star” and the “Eyes” filler, the set was already at 41 minutes and everyone in the house was having a ball.
At the celestial conclusion, without pause, the band fired up “St. Stephen” and the whole of the unlit field exploded in excitement, as it seemed that we had all been transported back through the setlist to the late 1960s. “Mount St. Molo” thundered out the tune as Phil belted out both the lyrics and deep end melody while everyone chugged along. Lyrics concluded, the band went straight for the jam jugular, the whole of the place rhythmically writhing with the tribal toms and heavy stringed strums. This lasted for a few measures before the group effortlessly moved into the Allman Brothers’ staple “Mountain Jam”, sending smiles and goosebumps out through the crowd as strangers and friends took a moment to look at each other, recognizing the moment, before moving back into akimbo. As if one Allman's reference wasn’t enough, the band also teased the ending of “Blue Sky” for good measure.
As the band departed from “Stephen”, Phil started up “Cryptical Envelopment” and the time warp continued. Bowling contributed nicely with that era-specific keyboard effect that reminiscent of the days of Pigpen and Live Dead. The short and sweet “Cryptical” transitioned without stop into “New Speedway Boogie” and at nearly an hour in, the band hadn’t taken a breath and no one was complaining. Graham took the first round of vocal duties and Stu followed suit for the second. Slide was the word for this one as Graham and Allen got to exchanging in call and response fashion, bending notes, keeping it straight, and then getting into Strangeland. Bowling threw in her contribution, twisting knobs and adding effects to her portion, ramping up her counterparts. At the close of the selection, the band finally took a two minute break to get a drink, catch a breath, and take stock of the moment.
Refreshed, Stu started up the familiar lick of “Sugaree” and the crowd began to sway once again. The ebb and flow of the tune afforded some moments of rest, where the music was laid out low and slow, and other moments of resurrection, where listeners couldn’t help but get frenetic with the build-up and release in repeated crescendos by the band. Following a short pause, “Uncle John’s Band” was the final set choice and provided a great opportunity for the audience to sing along some of the most favored, reflective, and well-known lyrics in the Grateful Dead catalog. Phil led the vocals on the tune, but like the rest of the night, it certainly was a team effort throughout.
As is customary, Phil returned to the stage to deliver his donor rap, but before motivating and reminding everyone to become an organ donor, he took a moment to deliver a personal message to Colorado:
“Before this week, I never knew how many wonderful little venues there were in the mountains of Colorado. For the last three days, we’ve been playing at these beautiful places. They sound so good, the setting is phenomenally beautiful, and the crowds are so welcoming and wonderful, so thank you for all that, Colorado.”
Phil continued on with his donor speech and reminded everyone that if it hadn’t been for a young boy informing his mother 23 years ago that he wanted to be an organ donor, he wouldn’t be alive today. That choice led to the saving of eight lives including his. Before returning to the music, Phil had one more thing to add,” Get the vaccination. It is for all of us.”
Whether jaded or not, many in attendance thought after the energy expended and length of the second set with its many transitions, we were destined to get a short and sweet tune to send us out into the night with one final memory. The band had other plans.
Gathering themselves and their rightful positions, Molo counted off,” One, two, three, four, five, six seven” and the band took off into the lead line of “King Solomon’s Marbles”, full bore and without any indication or sign of exhaustion. Not wanting to be left behind, the crowd threw in and the dance party was on once again. Six minutes later, the complicated groove complete, Stu initiated “Touch of Grey” for the final tune of the night and closed out the show and three nights of bliss with the Deadhead anthem that now, following the initiation of the pandemic and the not-too-distant political turmoil, rang truer than in times past with the fact that “we will get by, we will survive”. The resounding mantra was sang with truth and without hesitation from both sides of the stage as the final night’s notes permeated one more Saturday night.
At night’s end, it was apparent that this group of players truly love the music they are a part of and play it as though it was a part of them. Operating both as individual talent and cohesive conglomerate, the members delivered all they had and then some and made many glad they had caught all three nights and others wish they had.
Although there is no slouch in the group, in my opinion, Holly Bowling is the man, the whoa-man that is and gets my MVP nomination. Her playing seems truly rooted in her premier love of this music and what she throws in reflects that heart. She is completely unassuming but is a monster when let off the chain. Most times, her eyes are closed and she is listening with everything she’s got and letting the melody and time flow through her. One can only imagine the joy and honor she must feel being able to not only share the stage with such great players, but to play with one of the original authors of some of the most dynamic and intelligent music ever created.
Throughout the night, Stu Allen’s tone, phrasing, and execution emulated Jerry Garcia’s gift in a genuine way that captured the originator’s soulful playing without cheapening the effect. The man exudes talent and comes off as more thinker than rock star, although his chops and execution voluminously speak otherwise.
Grahame Lesh’s performance was a display in confidence and direction. His gifts are his own and no one can say that he has rested on the laurels of his pedigree. His success is self-made and thank the heavens that his path has aligned with music, this music, so that we and at least another generation will benefit from the roots and growth that has sprung forth from his experience for years to come.
John Molo is probably one of Phil’s longest standing friends and for good reason. Not only can the man, myth, legend keep time like Kronos himself, but his offstage presence and personality demonstrate one who is truly in love with the art of living: playful, thoughtful, intentional. His tank never seems to run dry and his cup continuously runneth over, inciting others to give the best of themselves, their all, both onstage and off. He truly is a demonstration in that we are only limited as much as believe we are or can be.
Finally, Phil Lesh still has what it takes in spades. In fact, his playing, both in meter and originality, continues to inspire and surprise fans and musicians alike. Watching “Mr. Kilowatt” do what he does best on stage is personally some of the best and most memorable experiences of my own life. His tone is without equal, and his style is just as unconventional. His comfort is not just in the pocket, but in the whole pair of musical pants. His demeanor and personality demonstrate his value of where he is and much of that is derived from getting a second lease on life. His final words on Saturday night summed it best: “I am the luckiest man in the room” and although this might be true, I believe that after what was witnessed and experienced this weekend, there are a few thousand people who might beg to differ.
In closing, it must be mentioned how special Planet Bluegrass is. Many already know how beautiful the locale is with its red rock canyon walls and the St. Vrain River traveling through it, but that is just the venue. Planet Bluegrass is more than just a place, it is its people and a state of mind. Every encounter with the Planet Bluegrass family is initiated with a smile and genuine desire to help whoever get wherever they need to go. There are no hulking security guards or policing presence. Instead, there are people, yes people, working effortlessly to ensure a great time is had by all and that the environment is accommodating for every man, woman, and the multitude of children who attend their events. All this stated, thank you Planet Bluegrass for staying true to the vibration of music, being focused on everyone’s connection to it, and providing a place where everyone can come together to enjoy solid hours of great living. I can think of no better place to take in an evening of good ol’ Grateful Dead music with familiar faces and friends not yet met.