If you’ve watched the Lakers in the playoffs, you have some idea of what the Phil Lesh and Friends show at the Greek Theater was like — long stretches of uninspired playing, everyone just a bit out of sync (or a little nauseous), punctuated by moments of energy and grace.
The former Grateful Dead bassist is touring in support of his first studio release, “There and Back Again” (Columbia). Lesh is, part owner of the jam band patent, and he has assembled a troupe that mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of the Dead.
Leisurely paced, expansively structured songs with scruffy vocals are the launching pad for extended jams. Keyboardist Rob Barraco’s vocals uncannily echo Jerry Garcia’s, while Jimmy Herring’s round guitar tone and circular phrasing channels his style.
Warren Haynes’ high, whiny slide work betrays his decadelong membership in the Allman Brothers Band (when the band drifts into a Bo Diddley beat midway in the second set, the Allman influence is palpable).
The effect is a band that toggles between country rock vocal choruses (“Uncle John’s Band” and “Box of Rain” show how deeply Ryan Adams and Wilco have been influenced by the Dead) and jazzy instrumental passages that can match fusion acts like Return to Forever and Pat Metheny in overweening indulgence.
Those two elements were balanced during the more focused first set. More song-oriented, the jams had a colloquial fluency–the band’s nosiest, most out-there moments sounded like Sonic Youth at its most quiescent. But their staunchly democratic ethos, with everyone having a chance to chime in, resulted in many dull, repetitive passages. The musical fires that flared up were often quickly doused.
If the early evening was a musical conversation, the second set resembled the hectoring babble of a cable news debate show. Mixing songs from the new album with classic Dead jams such as “The Eleven,” instead of giving each other space, the musicians stated their ideas simultaneously, jostling for position.
You’re initially jazzed by the music’s intensity and passion, and Haynes managed to snap off some tasty Wes Montgomery styled licks, but after a while it turned chaotically exhausting, barren stretches of unfocused yammering alleviated only by the occasional moment when they agreed on a song.