Almost all bass players begin at the root and move harmonically and rhythmically outward – some more so than others. Not the iconic Phillip Chapman Lesh, renowned for his long, strange, watershed trip anchoring the defiantly wayward Grateful Dead. On the Dead’s exploratory forays, Lesh often started “outside” and kept going – yet you could still decipher the essence of the song within his improvisations.
Phil's musical development on violin and trumpet along with his fervent interest in avant-garde and classical taught him “the rules” and how to break them. In addition, Phil was a novice on the bass in the Dead’s early days, alas he had no preconceived notions of what a bass was – or was not. Yet Phil could traditionally outline the changes with the best of them – and his tone constantly evolved by way of his continual curiosity and usage of state-of-the-art bass gear.
My two favorite “official” outside Lesh recordings nearly bookend the Dead – the cinematic, chaotic masterpiece Anthem of the Sun (1968) and the overly polished Without a Net (1990) wherein Lesh duels with Branford Marsalis.
Of my favorites from the Dead’s most accessible official albums – American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (1970) along with the underrated From the Mars Hotel (1974) and the much maligned Shakedown Street brilliantly produced by Lowell George (1978) – the “inside” Lesh kept the Dead as grounded as they could ever be.
Like the Dead, you can never really categorize Phil Lesh – which is why they were (mostly) fascinating.