Phil serves up some chicken soup (for the soul)
So after the Dead 50 shows in Chicago over July 4 weekend, I actually didn't go to any big outdoor concerts over the rest of the summer. No Phish tour. No Lockn. Chicago had been both exhilarating (musically) and difficult (emotionally), so I pretty much laid low close to home the rest of the summer with the exception of a few club dates (see my Fans history).
But when I heard that Phil and posse were going to be offering a symbolic end to the summer in Central Park, well, how could I resist? Why would I even try to resist?
Overall, the word I would use to describe this show was "touching." Coming off of monster sets at Lockn, the band was clearly not trying to push itself with expansive, ambitious jams. And despite a rollicking "Samson and Delilah" opener, there wasn't a ton of super high tempo rocking either.
Instead, the real tone for the show was set with the second song, "Catfish John." A Johnny Russell country classic, "Catfish John" is best known around here as a Jerry Garcia Band number and Phil's gang lent it a suitably gentle lilt.
The rest of the show was dominated by ballads, or what might otherwise be referred to as "slow songs." "Hard to Handle" (a staple of Chris Robinson's bands, in addition to a classic Dead cover) obviously didn't qualify in that category, but the rest of the first set - "Easy Wind," "West LA Fadeaway," "Candyman" and a restructured "Big River," had the crowd smiling and swaying, if not quite rocking out.
To be clear: I'm not suggesting the band was sleepy or tired. Just that they clearly felt like the more intimate confines of Rumsey Playfield (a few thousand people) were more appropriate for their subtle, sensitive side than the Lockn festival atmosphere of the previous weekend (20,000ish people).
So it wasn't any surprise that the second set stayed with the ballad theme, opening with a heartfelt "He's Gone" and "Next Time You See Me" (originally recorded by Junior Parker
"St. Stephen" got the crowd moving despite a slightly botched chord transition near the end and then dissolved into the clear highlight of the concert, a sick "Lovelight."
So if you ever hear anyone talk about the Dancing Baby Jam in the future, this is what they're talking about. And that's because a female family member of one of the band members spent most of the song on stage with what appeared to be a 1 or 2 year old blonde baby (a Lesh grandchild?). First the baby was crawling/dancing at stage left. Then the baby was perched on top of an equipment stack directly behind Phil, and then they made their way to stage right. Phil was clearly vibing with the baby, although in fairness the crowd got so into the child that for a moment the music itself was upstaged. The coolest part, though, was the band singing Lovelight's "Come on baby, come on baby, come on baby" refrain while basically serenading the infant.
After Lovelight, "Sugaree" and "Comes a Time" returned to the ballads before a tight "Franklin's Tower" closed the set. "Mr. Charlie" as the first encore was welcome, and few in the crowd could escape the fact that Phil chose to close the show with "U.S. Blues" even as the second Republican presidential debate was unfolding at the same time back in California. (I only got around to shooting some video at the end.)
On a personal level, I was actually really glad that I spent the whole show in the general admission crowd, rather than the separate VIP area I had somehow wrangled a pass for. It was crowded and not always for the faint-of-heart, but it was great. Jostled, cramped for space, sweaty, hot and a little tired, I couldn't have been happier back among the tribe.
It was enough to make me wonder why I had spent so much of the summer back home. Thanks Phil (and Friends!)