Looking back at Phil Lesh’s Grateful Dead days, ahead of his latest Vegas run

Phil Lesh brings some friends to Brooklyn Bowl for three shows this weekend.
Illustration: Ian Racoma

If Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were the primary voices and faces of the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh was its heartbeat. The band’s sole bassist from its 1965 formation through its 1995 dissolution, Lesh both anchored its large live repertoire and helped drive its famous improvisational jamming. Here are five of his memorable Grateful Dead contributions, some of which you might hear this weekend, when Lesh plays three shows at Brooklyn Bowl.

1. “New Potato Caboose” (Two From the Vault) Recorded in August 1968 at LA’s Shrine Auditorium, this 14-minute version of a Lesh co-penned track from that year’s Anthem of the Sun shows off his compositional chops—nodding to his interest in jazz, classical and experimental music—and his melodic approach to the bass guitar, quite non-traditional in rock at the time, or since.

2. “Box of Rain” (American Beauty) Lesh sang lead very rarely as a member of the Dead, but this seminal 1970 cut makes a convincing case for his pipes, which wring every bit of emotion from Robert Hunter’s heart-stirring lyrics. “It’s all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago.” Bonus: The song makes an appearance in the final episode of cult TV series Freaks and Geeks—twirl, Lindsay, twirl.

3. “Eyes of the World” (One From the Vault) Though “Phil bombs”—when Lesh boomed low and loud at songs’ critical moments—were relatively common over the years, full-on bass solos were not. Around the 8-minute mark of this Wake of the Flood warhorse (recorded at one of the band’s 1975 “comeback” shows, at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall), Lesh takes the reins from Garcia—and reminds us that the Dead essentially had two lead guitarists onstage every night.

4. “Unbroken Chain” (Philadelphia, March 19, 1995) Lesh left this beloved 1974 From the Mars Hotel number unplayed for more than 20 years … before digging it out one night at the Spectrum. Witness the spine-tingling reaction as the crowd—members of which had lugged around literal “unbroken chains” for years in hopes of hearing this—recognizes what’s happening, here.

5. Fallout From the Phil Zone This Lesh-curated 1997 compilation brings together a slew of scorching concert gems, several highlighting early-era bluesman Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (“Hard to Handle,” “Easy Wind”) and some jammed epically (a 20-minute “Viola Lee Blues,” a 32-minute “In the Midnight Hour”). It’s also home to one of Garcia’s very last showstoppers (a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Vision of Johanna,” delivered five months before Garcia’s 1995 death). The uninitiated could do a lot worse for a primer.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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