Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bill Frisell and Billy Martin played with Phil Lesh!

I'm a long-time fan of the Grateful Dead and even got to see them play a few times in 1994 and 1995 while Jerry Garcia was still alive.  Despite this, I don't often pay a whole lot of attention to the different lineups of "Phil and Friends" that Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh often puts together, although I respect his exploration of the Grateful Dead songbook and the way these various ensembles can find new paths of improvisation within these old songs.

When I saw a Tweet last week that mentioned that guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Billy Martin had performed two full sets on 4/22/15 (Earth Day) with Phil at his Terrapin Crossroads home venue in San Rafael, CA I took notice.  Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell is one of my favorite musicians, although I have never associated him with Grateful Dead music.  Drummer Billy Martin is definitely one of my favorite drummers and probably does have more of a connection to the jamband scene via the fanbase of Medeski, Martin and Wood - the esteemed improv trio that he is a member of.  Bill and Billy jamming with Phil was an unanticipated dream come true.

I was sure Billy Martin could sit in with no problem, but I didn't know how Bill Frisell would do in this setting, which might consist of unfamiliar material that is outside of his comfort zone.  I also wondered how he would be received by the Deadhead audience?  Watching the first set it seemed that Bill was a little unsure of himself and his role, and was not well acquainted with the songs.  But, as the first set progresses you can see Frisell learning what treatment the music calls for and gaining trust in his fellow musicians, especially in the more open, improvisatory moments.  As expected, Billy Martin's playing sounds very natural throughout, almost to the point where you forget that this is also his first time (?) collaborating with Phil Lesh.

To fill out the band, Phil employed his long-time cohort Rob Barraco on keyboards and a guy that I was unfamiliar with named Dan Lebowitz on guitar and pedal steel.  Having Barraco in the band helped provide structure where it was needed, and Barraco more than holds his own when things get more exploratory.  I was impressed by Barraco's playing abilities in a way that I never had noticed before.  Lebowitz is obviously familiar with the material and does a fair job in this highly-advanced musical conversation.  Perhaps he could have backed off a little bit at times and let the music breathe more?

The 2nd set began in the biggest way possible with a Dark Star that rose and fell and then rose again to unimaginable heights.  From there on the rest of the 2nd set consists of some of the best in-the-moment music making I've ever heard, with each musician reaching for the apex of his abilities.  As Bill Frisell gains more confidence he is able to add his "Frisellian" stamp to these songs.  The unmistakable sound of Frisell's voicings on these Grateful Dead themes is something I never thought I would hear.  When paired with the Billy Martin's drumming and Phil's quintessential bass, it's a wonderful mix.

Having read the setlist in advance I was looking forward to hearing the stand-alone When You Wish Upon A Star encore, while also being a little trepidatious, not knowing how that would go over.  Would it be a letdown that seemed in lieu of a more powerful encore such as a Shakedown Street or Help on the Way?  Never fear.  When You Wish Upon A Star is so exquisitely beautiful that it perfectly summed up the vibe of the music that had just transpired over the last 3+ hours, in a way that didn't need any addendum.

This seems like a once-ever occasion, but I would love to hear these guys get together again! There's an intimacy to this performance and a level of hear-a-pin-drop listening coming back from the audience that can only be achieved in a smallish room such as the one where this show took place.

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