By Mark Guarino
Summer and the Grateful Dead is a union that endured four decades — plus an added 13 years of solo projects and reunions once they were forced to disband. Phil Lesh, a founding member and the band’s bassist, is leading this season’s installment on a tour that played the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island Friday.
Unlike Ratdog, the blues-oriented combo fronted by Dead veteran Bob Weir, Lesh’s post-Dead outfit is tailored more like the ensemble that defined his former band. Throughout the three-hour set, Lesh, 68, contributed vocals but made his mark with beefy bass runs that gave the music volatility and strength.
With Dead principal Jerry Garcia represented by a plush likeness set atop the organ, the lead vocals were traded to Jackie Greene, a 27-year-old guitarist who, despite his baby face, is the most refreshing player of recent memory to be handed the Dead songbook. Greene sang with authority, matched by his guitar, which he frequently used to confront and trade steely solos with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, a long-time Bob Dylan sideman. While Lesh’s previous collectives suffered from atonal vamps and too many notes, on reprisals like “Viola Street Blues,” Greene and Campbell forced the song to matter more than the clatter.
Opening with a 70-minute set was Levon Helm, the drummer-singer of The Band who is enjoying a revival of sorts after years battling throat cancer and sorry financial straits. A Grammy win this year for best traditional folk album returned him to the road where, at 68, he is in the same role he’s always played: as bandleader, timekeeper and Southern gentleman. An eight-member band, including three horns, resurrected The Band’s bluesy side (“Rag Mama Rag,” “The Shape I’m In”) but paused for a segment where Helm played mournful bluegrass on mandolin.
A bit wearier but still infused with deep country soul, his remains one of the most affecting voices in rock history. The group ended with “The Weight,” a song, like everything that night, had years on it but sounded feisty and just glad to be there.