Phil Lesh will team with Wilco’s Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy for a one-time only “PHILCO” show, August 26, as part of Chicago’s Sacred Rose Festival. For the eternally youthful 82-year-old, the gig with Cline and Tweedy carries on a more than six-decade career built on collaboration, starting for him with The Grateful Dead.
As he explained when we spoke recently, the Dead was built on the musical unions he saw in two of the greatest jazz combos of all time, led by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
“The basic inspiration for The Grateful Dead was the Miles [Davis] Quartet with Coltrane or Trane’s quartet from the early Sixties. So that was pretty much the inspiration for the way we approach our music,” Lesh said.
Collaboration, as well as creating discourse through music, why his love for playing live has never waned, politics were just a few of the topics we discussed in a fascinating conversation.
Steve Baltin: One of the things that Mickey Hart and I discussed for his drum circle album was the importance of unity. And you’ve come off the road, we’re talking a lot about collaboration. So how much is it important to be out there and practicing unity and collaboration at this time when we are more divided than we’ve ever been?
Phil Lesh: Yeah, it’s obviously the most important thing we can do right now on a global level. So, yeah. I’m really glad to be doing that. But I’ve always felt that in a sense, in terms of The Grateful Dead, the medium is the message in the sense that when you see us up there playing music, collaborating and making music together, making music that’s never been made before, there’s always some new element in it. The message that I see that providing to everyone is that you could do this also. In other words, we’re demonstrating the power of collaboration in one field of human endeavor. And no matter what your field of endeavor is, you can achieve these same kind of results by collaborating with your peers.
Baltin: That is so interesting to me, because I had just done an interview a couple months ago with Danny Boyle, the film director who directed the FX series Pistol, all about The Sex Pistols. One of the things that emerged is part of what inspired people about the Pistols or a band like the Ramones was there was this sort of simplicity and it made you think that you can do it. And The Grateful Dead musically are so much more intricate, but the idea was it could inspire everybody to do the same.
Lesh: Yeah, but it doesn’t mean everybody can get that band together and make music. But people could start a company and create a new product or a new piece of software that’s never existed before that fills a need. And that, you’ll see that if you look back, you see that’s what’s been happening at least in Silicon Valley for the last 50 years.
Baltin: I talked to Patti Smith who is close to your age. And she talked about the fact she’s never seen it this divided. So it’s so interesting that we’re talking about collaboration at a time when politicians are a disaster.
Lesh: Yeah. I don’t understand how they get up in the morning, put on their shoes. You know what I mean?
Baltin: So do you feel like music can hopefully at least for a couple of hours bridge that divide and get people talking in a way that maybe we can grow some brain cells back?
Lesh: Yeah. I think that while the music is playing, it engenders a sense of unity in our community. Beyond that, when the music stops, it’s the same old divided country. So, it’s great that music has that power but there needs to be something more I think to make it stick.
Baltin: It’s interesting you say that we would be doing this if people knew how to. Unfortunately, a lot of people today want to argue and don’t want to listen.
Lesh: That’s the key to it right there. It’s like evolving spiritually, you have to want to do it, and you have to do to work to do it. You have to be active in doing so and I agree most people would rather sit comfortably in their own little less set of values and condemn everybody who doesn’t believe the same things that they do. And it’s true on all sides, nobody is immune from that.
Baltin: You talked about how The Grateful Dead was a collaboration. Do you remember the first show that you saw as a kid where you got that sense that everybody could do this?
Lesh: I got that from the Grateful Dead, I didn’t get it from any other source.
Baltin: Who are those artists for you that really best exemplify collaboration?
Lesh: The basic inspiration for The Grateful Dead was the Miles Quartet with Coltrane or Trane’s quintet from the early Sixties. So that was pretty much the inspiration for the way we approach our music. It was the careful exuberant freedom that they had, the way they listen to one another and how everybody is improvising all at the same time, there’s nothing that’s fixed. I heard a performance of Trane’s Quintet in ’62, in San Francisco. It totally transformed my life and my view of music, because it just kept evolving. It just kept changing and evolving and yet you always were aware wherever you were coming from. It was the finest thing I’d ever heard [chuckle]. And I grew up in the classic music scene, so I hadn’t known how deeply improvised music could go and how powerful it could be and that really opened my eyes, my ears, my heart.
Baltin: You’re doing this festival in Chicago with Wilco. Do you see how that early inspiration from listening to the Trane Quintet or the Miles Quartet still influences you today?
Lesh: Absolutely, it’s like a fundamental building block of how I approach the music that I make. That was the transformative experience. And I’ve kind of tried to live up to that.
Baltin: You say you tried to live up to that. Are there moments that you can look back on where you hit that perfection?
Lesh: Yeah, those do occur, but they’re transitory and they rarely last a very long time. If they do, it’s unusual. When you’re in the middle of this and it’s all happening, you’re not really there as an individual consciousness, you’re just a conduit. Your personality kind of disappears.
Baltin: As a writer you just hit these moments and it’s like you don’t know where they come from, you just appreciate them.
Lesh: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of a gift and your duty is not to so much benefit from it or profit from it, but to pass it on.
Baltin: What made Wilco the right band to collaborate for this project?
Lesh: What we’re doing this year is just opening it up. After COVID, we were shut down for so long and we really wanted to be mindful. We have our team here, my son, Grahame; our road manager, Molly and my wife Jill. And we brainstorm various ideas of the lineups and everything. So this just kind of came up in one of those sessions, “Hey, let’s do something with Wilco.” ‘Cause Nels Cline came and sat in with us at the camp some years back and that was a really cool experience. So it looks like now we’re gonna have Nels sit in through the whole set, and then Jeff is gonna come and sing a few songs from time to time during the set. So this is far as we know now.
Baltin: Do shows like this keep music more fresh for you?
Lesh: Yeah, I get to be surprised, I get to be astonished, I get to giggle with glee at some absurd thing that somebody plays. So yes, all of the above.
Baltin: Is Jeff going to be singing Dead songs or Wilco songs? Or is it a mix?
Lesh: We’re in negotiations about that right now and so we’ll figure that out before the show starts, I guarantee that.
Baltin: You guys did the tour so many years ago with Bob Dylan, who, of course, did the same thing with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and with The Band. So is this carrying on that legacy of working with different musicians and opening yourself up musically?
Lesh: Yeah, and also opening those other musicians up to Grateful Dead music.
Baltin: I first really got into the Dead through the Deadicated album because there were many bands that I’ve since become friends with who covered Dead songs on there. Can you appreciate that the Dead’s music was so wide ranging to everybody?
Lesh: Yeah, I definitely appreciate it and it gives me hope that the songs at least will last, and that they’ll still be playing the songs for quite a while. And that gives me a great deal of pleasure to contemplate that.
Baltin: Were there songs that you missed playing live?
Lesh: Oh, I just missed playing everything. I missed playing live constantly.
Baltin: When you get on stage and you see that, how much does that infuse you as a musician?
Lesh: Oh, it’s like a great jolt of good vibes, I’ll tell you. I was amazed at the intensity of the audience response and the welcome that they gave us, they were really glad to be there together out from under COVID. It was a little bit shocking actually, I hadn’t quite expected that.