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
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
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"
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
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
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.