"Then I went and played a benefit at a club in Berkeley, playing with a local pool of musicians that play some Dead songs," Lesh says in a recent phone interview. " And I discovered that there can't be a final word on this music. The recordings aren't the final word, and anything I do won't be the final word on it. This is music that demands to be reinterpreted, and it's happening every day."
That realization, and a successful 1998 liver transplant necessitated by Lesh's Hepatitis C condition, inspired Lesh to assemble a new band, dubbed simply Phil Lesh & Friends. After an initial rotating personnel pool, Lesh has settled on a permanent lineup, featuring Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, guitarist and Allman Brothers alumni Jimmy Herring, drummer John Molo, and keyboardist Ron Barraco. It's Lesh's dream configuration -- the one he recently brought into the studio to record Phil Lesh & Friends' There and Back Again, their debut album set for release on May 21. Lesh's musical dialogue with this unit -- and a new guitar -- sparked his recent creative surge.
"I got a Stratocaster for my birthday a year ago, and that generated a whole burst of songwriting," says Lesh. "I was thrashing around on electric guitar and writing grooves, and one of the songs kind of sat up and said to me, 'I'm a Robert Hunter song.' So I called him up and asked if he'd listen to what I had, and he said sure, and wanted to hear what else I had. I left him a cassette, and 48 hours later, I had lyrics to all three songs I'd given him."
Connecting with the lyricist that penned such Grateful Dead classics as "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Ripple" set off a chain reaction for Lesh. "All of a sudden I have new songs to play with the band, and Jimmy and Rob had some songs I wanted to do, and Warren's a very prolific songwriter," says Lesh. "I wanted to get this material out there, so people would know them when we played them live."
Amidst the 10 new songs, Lesh's live shows mine the Dead canon, often in unexpected ways. Rather than present commercial staples such as "Truckin'" and "Touch of Grey," Lesh's setlists often explore some of the more psychedelic creations from the band's early days -- songs like "Cryptical Envelopment," "Caution: Do Not Stop on the Tracks" and "New Potato Caboose."
"My favorite Grateful Dead album was (1968's) Anthem of the Sun," says Lesh. "From that period up to Workingman's Dead was the most exciting exploratory period for the band, and that's the approach I wanted to return to."
He's also been conscious of mapping out set lists, a practice that probably sounds loathsome to longtime fans of the Dead's freewheeling shows, but Lesh doesn't mind debunking a few myths. "The Grateful Dead wasn't quite as spontaneous as the legend," says Lesh. "The first sets had a formula: whoever sang the first song last night or time, Bobby or Jerry, then the other one would start off the next night. ... And before the second set, we'd decide what we'd do before space and drums, then we'd huddle during drums and decide what we were going to do then."
Grateful Dead fans are hoping for a huddle between Lesh and Dead vocalist and guitarist Bob Weir, whose band Ratdog plays immediately before Lesh at Jazz Fest. The two men's friendship has been strained at times following Garcia's death, as business disputes over the digitizing of the Dead's extensive music vault has led to public feuding. Lesh and Weir seem to be patching things up slowly, and the pair appeared together along with their other remaining Dead bandmates in an unannounced reunion on New Year's Eve 2001.
"I want to make sure that my relationship with those guys continues," says Lesh. "We're talking to one another again. We're all committed, passionate individuals with our own way of looking at things, and it devolved when we started disagreeing on business issues. It's much easier to resolve our differences in a creative atmosphere."
Whatever the future holds, Lesh intends to explore his musical past with no reservations. "At first some songs felt that they were too personally attached to Jerry's memory, but time goes by," says Lesh. "We all evolve, and it's been seven years now. I just like to play Grateful Dead songs. None of it is safe from me now."