SAN FRANCISCO — Sigmund Stern Grove was packed Sunday as San Francisco welcomed Phil Lesh and some of his friends to the Stern Grove Festival. The show was the grand finale of the 85th season of the annual free festival. Bubbles and beach balls filled the air on an uncharacteristically sunny day as fans of Phil Lesh and The Grateful Dead were treated to a stellar afternoon of incredible music. The 82-year-old Berkeley native is still going strong and touring after beating cancer twice, in 2006 and 2015. Lesh was at the top of his game playing with a host of talented musicians.
Many in the audience had their phones up, recording parts of the show on their phones, reminiscent of old Grateful Dead bootleggers.
Lesh was joined by eight band members, while he helmed on bass and vocals. Grahame Lesh, Phil’s son and opening band member Midnight North, carried the majority of the lead vocals while playing rhythm guitar.
Scott Metzger of the Grateful Dead tribute band Almost Dead shone on electric guitar and vocals. Guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan, who played with greats like Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie, was masterful with his guitar fret-hammering technique. Frequent Lesh collaborator John Molo, who has also toured with Bruce Hornsby and The Range and is a member of local band Moonalice, was on drums.
Jason Crosby, who worked with Lesh as well as Dave Matthews, took care of the keys. Stuart Bogie played saxophone and flute. The list was crowned by Katie Jacoby on violin and Mikaela Davis on harp. The two sang, in addition to accompanying Midnight North.
The band went through a monster two-hour set of Grateful Dead classics non-stop. Many songs were intertwined. After taking the stage and simultaneously dramatically tuning their instruments, the musicians launched into a moody psychedelic rock track “Dark Star.”
The crowd got noticeably livelier as the group moved on to “St. Stephen”, followed by “Shakedown Street”. The attendees seemed to move as one while dancing to the upbeat, folksy ditties, and enthusiastically participated in them, adding a “Whoo!” resounding. where it is needed.
The mood returned to downtempo grooves as the band launched into the moody, melancholy “Lady with a Fan” before moving on to “Terrapin Station”. Grahame and Phil Lesh swapped lead vocals on both songs seamlessly. The layering of harp, violin, sax and classical guitar in the improvisation exemplified the jam band’s talent for simultaneously listening to each other while skillfully playing individual solos that somehow merged into a musical tapestry.
The depth and complexity of this orchestration is characteristic of Phil Lesh’s symphonic method of composing songs that have enough space for the musicians to find their own space for improvisation within the framework of the composition.
Grahame Lesh took command of lead vocals as the band launched into “Jack O Roses”, then swapped with Scott Metzger for “Let It Grow”. On “Playing With The Band,” Jacoby shone during her violin solo and was also matched by Davis’ ethereal harp. Their improvisation continued seamlessly into the next song, led by the masterful Jordan. Using his famous ambidextrous pounding technique, Jordan’s classical guitar acrobatics coalesced into a beautiful, jazzy, instrumental version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Davis sang, backing Lesh on “Mountains Of The Moon,” before the band ended on an upbeat note with “Uncle John’s Band.”
The show kicked off with a set by the Bay Area folk rock band Midnight North, with Grahame Lesh, Elliott Peck and Connor O’Sullivan on bass and vocals, and Nathan Graham on drums. The band played an abbreviated set featuring a selection of songs from their previous albums. Jacoby and Davis joined them for “Green Country”. They ended their set with the title track from their 2021 album, there is always a story.
At the end of the show, Phil Lesh mentioned that it was his very first time performing at the Stern Grove Festival. The musician, recipient of a liver transplant in 1998, asks the public to consider being an organ donor.
The Stern Grove Festival returns for its 86th season next summer.