It's no secret that Phil Lesh & Friends has evolved into the best of the post-Grateful Dead solo projects; even the band's most ardent supporters are likely to be surprised at the focus and precision of the band's remarkably disciplined studio album, "There and Back Again."
Lesh, who played bass and sang the very occasional song with the Dead, tried several different combinations of players before settling on the quintet that recorded "There and Back Again" -- guitarists Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring, two of the most accomplished and virtuoso players playing contemporary improvisational rock; keyboardist Rob Barracoa from the Grateful Dead-inspired Zen Tricksters; and drummer John Molo, who is able to match the sophisticated arrangement sense of Lesh's conception while keeping the rhythmic engine of the unit humming.
"When we first started rehearsing, in the first 30 minutes everybody knew that it was something special," said Lesh. "It was beyond chemistry. Everybody in this band is adventurous enough to play outside themselves and forget about what they know, and deal with the context of what's happening in the moment."
The results were immediate in live performance, so good that Lesh was encouraged to record the band in the studio.
"I wanted this band to make a record because I wanted to see whether we could translate that energy that we have live, with the onstage jamming, into compositions for recording, which is really an art in itself. I was never satisfied with my work in the studio before and I wanted to find out what we could do. And I must say, this band has surpassed my wildest dreams with regard to what they can do in the studio."
Lesh brought in Robert Hunter to write lyrics for six tracks and Hunter's words are what brings this fresh take on Lesh's music closest to familiar Grateful Dead territory. Hunter may be the most underrated lyricist in rock history and his inspirational mythologization of the liberation inherent in the live performance of the music -- so strong here on "Celebration," "Night of 1000 Stars" and an oldie, "Freedom" -- is a reminder that his vision has carried this idea from the coterie notions of the Acid Tests, more than 35 years ago, to the stages of post 9/11 America, where the message is more urgently needed than ever.
It's hard to overestimate Haynes' contribution -- a great lead guitarist, frontman and songwriter, he also has the chameleon-like ability to blend into a band concept as a sideman. Here he plays guitar fills that rival his well-known solo ability and sings harmony vocals like a polished session player, then steps out front to write three songs dealing with the personal nightmare of his best friend and Gov't Mule partner Allen Woody's death. Haynes comes face to face with demon horror on "The Real Thing," "Patchwork Quilt" and "Welcome to the Underground," providing a chilling flipside to the optimism of Hunter's lyrics.
It's remarkable that Lesh himself is around to make this music. Three years ago he nearly died from hepatitis C; a liver transplant saved his life. The recovery made Lesh rededicate himself to his music and he went on a quest to find the perfect partners.
He finally arrived at that lineup. This group is truly a band concept -- the rhythm section cuts a series of grooves that always find a focal point yet frequently move into unanticipated territory. The vocal arrangements are consistently challenging the exquisite harmonic structure of the songs; the guitarists play lines etched like diamonds on glass and the lyrics offer a glimpse into the reason this music ever existed in the first place.
Lesh has made an album the Grateful Dead would have been proud of, a record with the kind of intricate guitar excursions that the late, lamented Jerry Garcia excelled in, and one the band's legions of fans can rally around.
"I think what this band is doing right now is a road away from all that grief that Deadheads are still experiencing," said Lesh. "And even though I miss Jerry terribly -- I wish he was still here so I could play with him -- I'm glad that I'm doing this. It's been important to me since before my transplant to deal with this music and develop it further. The music really now belongs to everyone who can grab a hold of it and make it theirs."