Blues Traveler, Phil Lesh Jam To Save Rainforest

Ex-Grateful Dead bassist sits in with N.Y. quartet at San Francisco benefit.

SAN FRANCISCO — Phil Lesh's jam sessions with his friends have been

hot tickets lately. But Blues Traveler turned the tables Monday, inviting the ex-Grateful

Dead bassist to jam with them as part of the Blues Traveler and Friends concert at the

nearly full 3,500-seat Warfield Theater.

Longtime Bay Area resident Lesh accepted, sitting in with the genial New York

blues-rock quartet for a fat-bottomed, two-bass rendition of "Sweet Talkin' Hippie" from

the band's eponymous 1989 debut.

The show, billed as Blues Traveler's only West Coast date this year, was a benefit for the

Rainforest Action Network — an organization founded in the mid-1980s to combat

the rampant destruction of the rainforests by corporate interests. Caught up in the spirit of

the event, the band came on strong.

"We haven't played in a long time, and you've made us feel very welcome," said

singer/harmonica virtuoso John Popper, in trademark black leather fedora and

harmonica-filled bandoleers, as the crowd cheered the band's appearance.

The first set opened strong with the band revving up a ferocious "Crash Burn" from

Four (1994) and a big-grooving "Slow Change" from Blues Traveler

(1990).

After four songs, Popper introduced Lesh, who stood between drummer Brendan Hill

and bassist Bobby Sheehan. Lesh, 59, took care to watch Sheehan for the changes in

"Sweet Talkin' Hippie," as the lights glowed blue and purple.

Since the 1995 breakup of psychedelic-rock standard-bearers the Dead following

guitarist Jerry Garcia's death, Lesh has hosted numerous jam sessions with members of

Phish, the Allman Brothers Band, Hot Tuna and fellow Dead alumni. Now he was an

honored guest.

As the tempo of "Sweet Talkin' Hippie" picked up, guitarist Chan Kinchla and Popper

explored a quicker-paced melodic jam that gave Lesh a good workout and caused some

of the mellower dancers on the floor to lose the rhythm of the song. Popper then scatted

and led the audience in a call-and-response chant.

The audience stomped out the beat, and Lesh aimed his instrument's neck into the

crowd, as if fending off an invading horde.

Lesh left, and the band covered Stevie Wonder's upbeat "Sir Duke," then slowed down

for "The Mountains Win Again" from 1991's Travelers and Thieves and "Hook"

from Four.

During Blues Traveler's second set, Popper introduced local keyboardist Merl Saunders,

who contributed to the band's 1993 Save His Soul album. Saunders sat in on the

ecological-warning number "Whoops."

Blues Traveler reached back to their debut album again for the hard-rocking tune

"Mulling It Over," which segued into their first hit, "But Anyway." Saunders left the stage,

and the band played "Gina," which led to a take on John Lennon's one-world anthem

"Imagine," and then back into "Gina."

Kinchla slid his fingers through the raunchy blues intro to "Carolina Blues" (RealAudio excerpt) from Blues

Traveler's fifth and most recent studio album, Straight on Till Morning (1997).

Then Popper brought out violinist Mike "Pieface" Fiorentino of the show's opening act,

Dear Liza, for a version of the Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"

done dirty-funk style.

"It absolutely blew me away," said 32-year-old San Franciscan Eddie Bardon, who paid

$150 for a floor ticket to the show. "I have a bunch of [Blues Traveler] CDs ... [but] I had

no idea that they were like that live. They were one with each other. Completely, total

shredding. Heavy shredding. I would go see them again, and I would pay twice as

much."

Randy Hayes, a co-founder of Rainforest Action Network, also was delighted with Blues

Traveler's efforts. "Music has inspired social movements forever," Hayes said. "Music is

the stuff of revolution ... people who care about music care about nature, care about

Earth, care about the rainforest, and music is a fantastic vehicle for us to get the message

out, to raise money."

Seats in the upper balcony cost $30 for the evening, but some patrons donated up to

$10,000 to the cause to enjoy a preshow vegan buffet with free-flowing wine. During

dinner, the PA system washed the crowd with the sounds of the rainforest — from

squawking birds to thunderstorms. A silent auction featured a Modulus bass and a guitar

signed by Blues Traveler. Harmonicas signed by Popper were auctioned live for $350

and $550.

The opening set by Bay Area-based five-piece Dear Liza (Scott Rednor, acoustic

guitar/vocals; Steve Rowen, electric guitar/vocals; Greg Glasson, bass; Glenn Grossman,

drums; and Fiorentino, violin/mandolin) ranged from mellow folky tunes to heavier,

prog-rock jams. Rowen and Rednor traded off vocals, while Fiorentino's violin gave the

band both a country tinge and a far-out spaciness.

Hayes said the Rainforest Action Network hoped to raise $100,000 from the benefit. The

organization is working with the indigenous U'wa people to stop California-based

Occidental Petroleum from destroying Colombian rainforest land, and to negotiate with

hardware giant Home Depot (which has a 25 percent share of the lumber market) to stop

selling lumber from old-growth forests.

"Rainforest Action Network is about providing avenues of action to help regular people

out there, music lovers, be a part of the solution, instead of the problem," Hayes said.