|Volume 5 Number 2|
The Unruly Sunne Issue
Here in DeadWorld, the winter of 1997-98 has been marked by the long-expected unleashing of El Niño's full fury, bringing with it weather of near-biblical proportions - rain, snow, wind, floods, mudslides, and giant sinkholes that swallow brand-new Buicks whole. Were the polar ice caps to melt tomorrow, jaded Californians would merely shrug and say, "so what else is new?"
The first weekend in December seemed as though it would set the pattern for the rest of a bleak season, with the first in a seemingly endless series of major rainstorms in San Francisco and its environs. But on that same weekend, an event took place that banished all gloom, igniting a glow bright and warm enough to see us through many a dark, cold winter. That event was called PhilHarmonia.
It had the simplest of beginnings, in the musical gatherings that Phil and Jill Lesh have hosted for several years at their home each Christmas Eve, bringing friends and family together for a traditional holiday singalong. Struck by the strong feeling of community that can be generated in a room full of people joined in song, Phil got to thinking about ways to spread that good feeling around, and to expand the circle of voices to include his extended family - the Deadheads.
When the time came to plan the first major fund-raising event for the Unbroken Chain Foundation, the recently-formed non-profit organization started by Phil, Jill and some of their friends and neighbors, Phil had the answer - there could be, after all, no more appropriate way to raise money for an organization dedicated to community service than a good old-fashioned community sing (with a special Grateful Dead kind of twist to it, of course!). And so, PhilHarmonia was born.
A small army of volunteers sprung to work planning the event. San Francisco's spacious Maritime Hall was reserved for Sunday, December 7. Phil started getting in touch
with some of his musical friends, inviting them to join in the fun, and to help lead the singing. Without much difficulty he was able to recruit a stellar cast: Edie Brickell, David Grisman, Bruce Hornsby, Jackie LaBranch, Donna Jean (Godchaux) McKay, Graham Nash, Michael Tilson Thomas and Bob Weir (plus unannounced surprise guest Mickey Hart). Tickets were put on sale through GDTS Too, with no formal advertising aside from announcements on dead.net and the Grateful Dead hotline, and they sold out instantly.
By the time the doors opened at the Maritime on the rainy afternoon of December 7th, the old union-hall-turned-concert-venue was bedecked with flowers and plants, which were all donated, as were the complimentary snacks, bottled water and commemorative T-shirts handed out to the ticket holders as they filed in. Longtime members of the Grateful Dead crew were on hand, having volunteered their services to see that everything ran smoothly. The musicians had assembled for a quick rehearsal and soundcheck (all except for Graham Nash, whose flight was delayed, and who was still in a cab enroute to the gig five minutes before showtime). As the cast gathered in the dressing room in the moments before taking the stage, they beheld a glorious sight through the picture windows - a spectacular double rainbow, arching over the Bay Bridge and spanning the San Francisco waterfront. Talk about "fraught with portent!" - the rainbow was to be a harbinger of the wonders yet to come.
The afternoon started out on the perfect note, so to speak - with the good old "Not Fade Away" chant that Deadheads had sung as a coda to so many shows. As the crowd took up the familiar refrain, the featured guests began to file onto the stage to a warm reception, capped by the outburst of ecstatic cheers when Donna Jean walked on, standing on a stage alongside her former Grateful Dead bandmates for the first time in nearly two decades. It was a powerful moment, and there were tears in many eyes,
including Donna's. That was just the first in the day's many emotional highs, as Phil and his distinguished friends led the assembled throng (including a children's choir in the balcony) through a wonderfully unpredictable selection of songs from a wide variety of spiritual and secular musical traditions, from Christmas carols ("Angels We Have Heard On High") to Gospel ("Go Tell It On The Mountain") to Folk and Pop standbys ("Imagine," "Teach Your Children," "Give Peace A Chance") and, of course, some Grateful Dead content ("Ripple"). The audience, using lyric sheets in the program booklet or reading the words projected on two large screens, made a joyful noise indeed, making up in enthusiasm what it might have lacked in formal training. There were also, among the many deeply touching moments, some episodes of sheer hilarity - Bob Weir's brave but doomed effort to get three sections of the audience to sing the Beatles' "Blackbird" as a round dissolved into good-natured chaos. Michael Tilson Thomas (someone with more than a little experience in leading large groups of people) led a fast-paced, raucous rendition of "The Twelve Days Of Christmas," with a different section of the audience assigned each "day" (and Mickey given a solo shot on - what else? - "twelve drummers drumming").
By the time PhilHarmonia came to a close (with a reprise of "Not Fade Away," followed by the sweet Bahamian lullaby "We Bid You Goodnight"), the spirit of community that was the goal of the event was abundantly evident - there were smiles, tears and lingering hugs all around, and many members of the audience-turned-choir were still singing as they left Maritime Hall. The event was also a smashing success in the most crucial way - it raised $20,000 for each of the three vital community-based organizations that were chosen as the Unbroken Chain Foundation's first beneficiaries (Central City Hospitality House, Bay Area Women's and Children's Center, Tenderloin Children's Playground and Recreation Center).
It didn't end at Maritime Hall, though - after PhilHarmonia came the post-show party at the San Francisco Hilton, attended by the several hundred generous folks who shelled out for the higher priced Donor tickets. It's a good bet all of those in attendance will agree that they got their money's worth - there was an abundance of excellent food and drink (all donated by the Hilton, which served as corporate partner in the entire event), and Brazilian songs by the talented Claudia Gomez. After dinner, David Gans and a few members of the Broken Angels played a short, well-received set of tunes. Then the fun really began, as Gans welcomed Phil, Bobby, Bruce and Donna to the stage for a mini-Dead-fest, featuring terrific renditions of "Bird Song," "Box Of Rain," "Cassidy" and "Big River." Phil stuck around for an encore of "New Speedway Boogie" and "Bertha." And everyone, we think it's safe to say, went home happy, at the end of a long and remarkable day in our community's history.
In Other News
Phil found several other opportunities to get out of the house, mingle with the Deadheads and make some music - after his surprise September appearance at a benefit in Berkeley, Phil got the playing bug again, and scheduled several Bay Area gigs (all benefits for Unbroken Chain) with the aforementioned Broken Angels, an ever-changing confederation of Dead-inspired musicians organized by David Gans. After two successful Maritime Hall shows, the action shifted to that most hallowed of rock shrines, The Fillmore, for a January date that reunited Phil with Vince Welnick for the first time since the San Francisco Symphony's American Festival in June, 1996. Lesh, Welnick and friends rocked the house in a show packed with old favorites, capped by a couple of major surprises - resurrections of "St. Stephen" (for all you statisticians out there, the first time Phil has played the song since Halloween, 1983) and "Cosmic Charlie" (last played by the Dead in 1976!). (See page two for news of the new "Phil Lesh and Friends" series of shows).
The Club Front studio was abuzz with activity this fall and winter - in addition to the usual spelunking in the cavernous reaches of the vault to find treasures for future release, there was also some real, live new music being made. First, Vince was there, to do overdubs and mixing for his first Missing Man Formation album (see page 6 for related article). Then Mickey took over, to work on the forthcoming Planet Drum release.
(More info on Mickey's various projects next door). Bill Kreutzmann gave everyone at Club Front a nice surprise when he showed up unannounced at the Grateful Dead family's holiday party in December. This rare mainland sojourn for the island-dwelling Billy marked the first time all the remaining core band members have been together for awhile, and the reunion was a warm one indeed.
By the time you read this, Bobby will be back to work with RatDog (see spring tour dates on back page), but the really big news in the Weir household can be found in the announcement on Page One!
And looking ahead - The process of reinvention and renewal that began a couple of years back with the first Furthur Festival will continue this summer. The old Bus will have a new paint job and a rebuilt engine (it never did have any brakes to speak of, but that just made the ride more fun). In accordance with audience suggestions and performer preferences, there will be a different format this time around - fewer bands playing longer sets, with more special guests, more jamming, and more surprises. Stay tuned for details as we get closer to Summer, and start packing!