words & photos by Lou Montesano
Phil Lesh has lots of friends. After Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, Phil kept the music of the Grateful Dead alive by enlisting top-tier talent to tour under the banner of Phil & Friends. Early collaborators included jamband stalwarts Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring and Trey Anastasio, but over the years Phil broadened his reach to include jazz influences (Stanley Jordan, John Medeski), sax and horn players (Bill Evans, Trombone Shorty), guest vocalists (Joan Osborne, Teresa Williams) and some of the finest emerging talent around. The confluence of musical styles and first- and second-generation musicians has created many magical moments over the past 20 years, with, we hope, many more to come.
Along with his ever-changing ensemble of friends and on-again, off-again tours with former bandmates as Furthur and 2015’s Fare Thee Well shows, Phil managed to find time to open his own music venue, Terrapin Crossroads, in San Rafael, California. An intimate restaurant and performance space, Terrapin Crossroads has been a proving ground for musicians who aspire to perform the Dead’s music with the band’s original bass player. Among those who have earned a place in the rotation is Grahame Lesh, Phil’s 30-year-old son, who has developed into a fine guitarist and vocalist. Along with Ross James, a certified master of the Telecaster, Alex Koford on drums, Jason Crosby on keyboards and a roster of bass players, the Terrapin Family Band has evolved beyond a tribute band or an opening act into an impressive musical force that more than holds its own against other Grateful Dead offshoots, including the stadium-filling Dead & Company. But what really makes a Terrapin show special is when father Phil joins on bass to make it a family affair and create yet another iteration of the Dead’s timeless music.
Such convergence recently took place on February 12 and 13 at Brooklyn Bowl, and the result was two nights of classic tunes, surprising covers and, of course, extended jamming. The photos here are from the second night, a lengthy and energetic performance that stands up against most anything I’ve heard in 40 years of listening to Grateful Dead music. [My first Grateful Dead concert was Englishtown in 1977. The show is available as Dick’s Picks Vol. 20 and is considered among the better shows of middle-kingdom Dead featuring Keith and Donna Godchaux.]
As good as the Monday show was, fans who were there for both nights said the Sunday show was every bit as good — hard to believe, but after comparing set lists, it certainly seems possible. One constant whenever and with whomever Phil plays is that shows start right on time. These guys come to play, and rather than indulging bad habits backstage as all bands did in the old days, Phil and his mates can’t wait to get out there and make music. Turning things a bit upside down, the band opened with "Sugar Magnolia," followed by "Scarlet Begonias." First-set covers included impressive takes of the Rolling Stones’ "Monkey Man" and Robbie Robertson’s "Broken Arrow" along with Dead standards such as "New Minglewood Blues" and "Fire on the Mountain." They closed the set with "Throwing Stones," perhaps sending a bit of a political message for our turbulent times: "So the kids they dance and shake their bones, and the politicians throwing stones. Singing ashes to ashes all fall down." When I arrived home later that night, I learned Michael Flynn had resigned as National Security Adviser.
Speculation swirled about the second set, but no one could have anticipated opening with "Sweet Jane," launched with the classic Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner twin guitar intro from Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. Scott Metzger, another bona fide member on the circuit who handles guitar duties for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and fronts the power trio Wolf!, displayed his chops on "Viola Lee Blues" before the band kicked things into overdrive with serial jams of "Unbroken Chain," "The Wheel," "Playing in the Band," "Terrapin Station" and "I Know You Rider."
All of this is made even more remarkable given that Phil Lesh is a liver transplant survivor — his Donor Rap encouraging fans to become organ donors is a part of every show — and the fact that he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2015. About to turn 77 in March, there are few signs of slowing down. Phil and the Terrapin Family will be back at Brooklyn Bowl on March 12 and 13 (tickets), in between multi-night runs of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (March 9-11 and March 16-18). Concert-goers reluctant to explore the current crop of Grateful Dead-inspired musicians out of fear the scene is past its prime owe these acts a listen. They don’t just jam and wind up lost in space. They rock, they shred, they absolutely bring it every night with an energy and authenticity that can be inspiring. These are not nostalgia acts. In addition to their stints in various Dead formations, most of these musicians have their own projects that touch different bases, but all of them are very much of this time, honoring traditions in the most meaningful way possible — by building on what came before them and continuing to innovate and move things forward.
After Phil & TFB's return to Brooklyn Bowl in March, Phil Lesh & Friends will do three nights at the Cap.
Phil Lesh & Terrapin Family Band - 2/13/17 Setlist
Set I: Sugar Magnolia, Scarlet Begonias, Sunshine Daydream, Broken Arrow, New Minglewood Blues, Monkey Man, Fire On the Mountain, Throwing Stones
Set II: Sweet Jane, Cumberland Blues, Viola Lee Blues, Unbroken Chain, The Wheel, Playing in the Band, Terrapin Station, I Know You Rider, Playing in the Band
Encore: Bird Song, The Other One, Samson & Delilah
photos by Lou Montesano