Watching The River Flow: On Tour With Phil Lesh And Bob Dylan (Fall 1999)
If Cornell University was full of childhood exuberance, the show at Wittemore Center on the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham, New Hampshire, was sobering in its contrast. The show was delayed for nearly an hour as campus police, assisted by New Hampshire State Police, converged en masse to bust anyone in the parking lot that was vending. The crackdown prevented the doors to the venue from being opened as all the security was focused on the parking lots. Inside the crowded arena, police waded into the center of the crowded floor to bust possibly hundreds people for smoking illegal substances. Such police action has not been seen in a docile concert setting since the early ‘70s at Nassau Coliseum. Viewing the constant dragging out of fans from the crowd cast an eerie pall on the proceedings as the police, in some cases, brought their handcuffed suspects through the backstage and dressing room areas.
The fans that did manage to see the show were rewarded with a wonderful selection of songs. The jam that opened the show was more conservative in structure than previous shows, but was no less satisfying. Kaukonen and Haynes sparred like old prizefighters as Lesh, Barraco and Molo provided a solid launching pad for them to shoot into space. The performance of “Attics Of My Life” was astonishing as Barraco, Lesh and Kaukonen hit their mark vocally on this inspired Grateful Dead classic. The set focused more on the songs than jams as Kaukonen’s version of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” and Haynes’ working of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” gave the set a definite blues feel. Also outstanding was Kaukonen’s “Good Shepherd,” which was performed perfectly. The inclusion of “Get Together” was masterful in its newfound execution, and “Blue Sky” featured soaring guitar work by Kaukonen and Haynes that was a marvel to hear.
Dylan’s set was also filled with more gems as the talented songwriter continued to deal aces from the bottom of the deck. Breaking out another tune—“Duncan And Brady”—to open his set, Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” was weepy and potent in its delivery. Peppering his set with such nuggets as “Desolation Row,” “If You See Her, Say Hello” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” with the seldom performed “Rock Of Ages” and “Down By The Cove,” displayed the artist at the top of his craft. His band is tight, and Dylan’s guitar playing was fast and furious. He ended songs on a dime with one backward glance towards drummer David Kemper. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that both the Dylan and Lesh camps were glad that the tour didn’t end in New Hampshire.
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has a well-deserved reputation as being a party school. Renowned in the pages of Playboy Magazine’s annual college review issue, the school is known as “The Zoo.” So it was understood that the show would be a far cry from the previous night’s debacle in New Hampshire.
Phil and Friends rose to the occasion performing an opening jam that was sublime, featuring Kaukonen and Haynes. The ensemble playing was magnificent as Lesh, Barraco and Molo provided solid support in workmanlike fashion, really allowing the guitarists to hit their mark. The jam magically wove into the opening strains of “St. Stephen,” that was met with a deafening roar from the crowd. Haynes’ and Kaukonen’s guitar playing was as frenzied as two pit bulls fighting over a piece of meat, as Lesh’s bass playing shook the foundations of the arena during “The Eleven Jam.” Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow” is another tune in Lesh’s song canon to which the former Dead bassist does justice. Featured on Phil Lesh and Friends’ recent release, Love Will See You Through (Grateful Dead Merchandising), Lesh’s sensitive vocal delivery awakes many emotions, and this performance was no exception. Besides being a world class guitarist, Haynes is also a fine vocalist as he displayed during his wonderful rendition of Traffic’s “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys.” And let’s not forget Jorma Kaukonen whose participation in this final leg of the Phil and Friends tour was highly anticipated as well. Kaukonen was sensational as the Hot Tuna founder pulled “I Am The Light Of This World” out of his considerable musical bag of songs. His bluesy voice and folksy guitar playing were tasty throughout the show.
It was hard to believe after the sensational “Scarlet Begonias” and “Franklin’s Tower,” that the tour was coming to an end.
The set by Bob Dylan that followed will probably go down in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll as one of those truly special musical moments. Dylan began his acoustic set with the gospel flavored “Somebody Touched Me,” before preaching the gospel of his legendary songbook of tunes for which he is so well known. He performed “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “Tangled Up In Blue” before strapping on his black Fender Stratocaster guitar for electric versions of “Man Of Peace” and “You’re A Big Girl Now.” Dylan then announced to a stunned crowed, “I want to bring out a friend of mine for this next song,” and out from the wings stepped Haynes. The Gov’t Mule guitarist wasted no time in getting down to business performing a hair-raising version of “All Along The Watchtower,” while Larry Campbell wailed on his pedal steel. Dylan appeared to relish his jam with Haynes as the two stood toe-to-toe, each unleashing a volley of guitar solos as the crowd howled in appreciation.
After another rare marathon version of “Highlands,” Dylan brought out Haynes and Kaukonen for “Highway 61 Revisited.” Again, Dylan turned his smiling face to Haynes as the Gov’t Mule guitarist ripped into an exciting slide guitar solo. After the obligatory encores of “Love Sick” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” Phil Lesh joined Dylan on stage. “It has been an honor and a privilege to be playing with Phil Lesh and I hope we can do it again,” Dylan announced to the crowd. Lesh joined Dylan for a wonderful acoustic arrangement of “Friend Of The Devil” that featured a trademark harmonica solo from the iconoclastic rocker. With Lesh standing at his side, Dylan then brought Haynes and Kaukonen back out for a rollicking version of “Not Fade Away,” followed by “Alabama Getaway” with the cast of musicians each taking a generous solo while backed by Dylan’s crack band. After Lesh, Haynes and Kaukonen left the stage, Dylan continued his seven-song encore with thrilling performances of “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Rainy Day Women No. 12 &35,” after which he put on a white cowboy hat and strolled straight to his waiting tour bus.
In what was truly a testament to both artists, Lesh and Dylan undertook what turned out to be one of finest tours of the decade. The stellar musicianship and camaraderie was both real and infectious as was demonstrated by the numerous jams and musical magic that occurred during the performances. There were more than a few misty eyes in both camps after the final note had been played, and the unanimous opinion was that both artists would again share a stage together in the future. This is welcome news, indeed.
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