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20 Years of Phil & Friends: Revisiting Our 2002 Interview with Phil Lesh

Richard B. Simon | March 05, 2018
Jay Blakesberg

On February 27, 1998, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh gathered a group of musicians for a benefit concert at The Fillmore in San Francisco, including Jeff Chimenti, Dave Ellis, Stan Franks, and Jay Lane, along with his longtime bandmate Bob Weir. The show—the first of several such gatherings that year—is now considered the birth of Phil & Friends, the revolving-door band that Lesh has played with countless times in the two decades since (Lesh used the Phil & Friends moniker for a show in 1994, but that basically amounted to an acoustic Dead performance, as opposed to the Phil & Friends format of 1998 through today). In celebration of the recent landmark anniversary—and Lesh's current duo tour with Weir—we dug into the archives to present an interview with Lesh from the June/July 2002 issue of Relix, in which the bassist discusses forming the rotating Friends lineup, his health scare and subsequent liver transplant, continuing to play Dead music after the death of Jerry Garcia and releasing his first solo album There and Back Again with his Quintet lineup of Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco and John Molo—among other topics. 

When the Grateful Dead folded in 1995, bassist Phil Lesh was happy to be able to spend some time at home with his kids. But the music wouldn’t let him rest. He started doing benefit shows as Phil Lesh and Friends, playing Dead tunes with various Bay Area musicians. Eventually, guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Mickey Hart, pianist Bruce Hornsby and Lesh regrouped as the Other Ones, and in 1998 they toured with guitarists Steve Kimock and Mark Karan, jazz sax whiz Dave Ellis, and drummer John Molo, to great success.

The party was cut short by Lesh’s near-fatal brush with hepatitis C, which had irreparably damaged his liver and sent him into the hospital later that year for liver transplant surgery.

Lesh emerged from illness with a new set of priorities, including a mission to champion organ donors and transplant programs. Four months later, Phish guitarists Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell joined “Phil and Phriends” for three shows in San Francisco, busting some old warhorse tunes out of a thirty-year drydock and helping Lesh realize that the music could never stop.

When business and creative differences arose among Lesh and his former Dead bandmates, Lesh continued on his own trajectory, establishing Phil Lesh and friends as a nexus for musicians from both the good ol’ psychedelic rock school and the young, blossoming “jamband” scene, which the Dead’s improvisational aesthetic had spawned. Lesh pursued the spaces between lyrics with a revolving-door lineup that included members of Hot Tuna, Little Feat, the String Cheese Incident, Galactic, moe. and more. The lineup solidified in 1999, with guitarists Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule) and Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Allman Brothers Band), keyboardist Rob Barraco (Zen Tricksters) and Molo (Bruce Hornsby, the Other Ones). Contact with the next generation of Dead-influenced musicians reinformed the music and reinvigorated Lesh.

After thirty years, with the Grateful Dead – and nearly seven years without – Lesh has released There and Back Again, his first-ever solo album, which is really a collaboration among the band members. The disc sounds like nothing that has come out of the Dead camp before. Its tightly-produced rock sound spans reggae, honky-tonk, southern rock, avant-garde jazz and even 18th-century polyphonic church music, a la J.S. Bach – occasionally calling up Zappa, Phish, Dire Straits and even Queen.

Kicking back on a couch, in an empty house, high atop a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, Lesh talked about the journey – and dropped a few hints about what may turn out to be a great summer to be a Deadhead.