On Saturday, September 23rd, as part of the musical smorgasbord that is Brooklyn Comes Alive, San Francisco-based roots-rock quartet Midnight North will be performing a tribute to folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The band, comprised of Elliott Peck, Grahame Lesh, Alex Jordan, and Connor O’Sullivan, are no strangers to CSNY’s material. Their cover of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” has become a fan-favorite selection in their live repertoire, and their note-perfect three-part harmonies hew much closer to the music of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and Young) than they do to the band’s closest literal relation in the music world, Grahame’s father Phil Lesh‘s Grateful Dead.
Ahead of the performance, we got the chance to pick the brain of Elliott Peck (who contributes guitar, keys, and vocals to the band’s down-home sound on top of her duties as one of their principal songwriters), about the power of harmony, what constitutes strong songwriting, and her feelings on championing precision within a music scene dominated by the spontaneous and the unknown.
Live For Live Music: Brooklyn Comes Alive is an event centered around sort of ‘the unknown’…doing something different. Different lineups, different songs, improvisation…the potential for the unexpected. But as a CSNY tribute set with your full-time band, Midnight North, your set at the festival is a a bit of an outlier. Just like CSNY, Midnight North’s original music has an undeniable quality of precision. The vocal harmonies are very much in the forefront, the songs are tight and written with mindful intent. Can you tell us a little about your feelings on crafting fine-tuned songs, especially in a community centered around improvisation?
Elliott Peck: That’s a great question. We’re very inspired by music that does have a quality of improv. But we also really value the idea of a good song, consisting of good melodies and good lyrics. Because I think that, with the power of good musicianship and the ability to either stretch out the song or to keep it focused and tight really gives you an edge on all levels…You’re looking at all different angles of it.
Especially with our latest record, Under The Lights, we start with a song very structured, and keep the improv and jam minimal for the studio record, with the potential of expanding certain setions, using them to go off into different territories when we play the songs live, which is what we tend do. What we say is, ‘We’re not a jam band, but we’re a band that can jam. [laughs]”
“’Greene County,’ for example, one of the songs on the new record, we tend to stretch that ending as far as we want to take it. It’s a great ending we often use when we have guests come sit in with us. Scott Law recently played on that one, Phil Lesh played on it with us. We kind of meander that one through the ending and just see where it’s gonna go. So we definitely leave room for that in our songs, but we put the focus and the importance on a good studio song to start with.”
L4LM: That was one of my biggest takeaways from Under The Lights—the strength of the songwriting. It seemed like your were very focused on making this a collection of solid, well-thought-out songs that stand up both on their own and as a set. That notion is what has everyone involved in planning Brooklyn Comes Alive so excited for your CSNY set. It really feels like a perfect fit for Midnight North. How did the idea for the whole tribute come about?
EP: How that all started is we started doing a cover of [Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s] “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at our shows maybe two, two and a half years ago. It was kinda one of those ideas where we’re sitting around late night, thinking, ‘What do we want to do next we want to do next?’ ‘What do we want to tackle?’ And our keyboard player [Alex Jordan] came up with the idea of ‘Suite Judy Blue Eyes’ because ‘we do these great three-part harmonies, and I think learning that would really challenge us in the singing aspect of things.’
Watch Midnight North perform Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” below, via the band’s YouTube page:
We sat around many late nights, drinking and trying to come up with the right harmonies…[laughs] Some pretty bad trial and error came out of that, but eventually we nailed down a kind of solid rendition of it. And actually, we kind of ended up pumping up the music of it a little bit and making it a little bit more ‘rock and roll’ than the original was, which lent itself well to being played live.
So finally we pulled it out at a couple live shows, and the audience reaction was just…incredible. Like we never would have expected. People from our generation, and people that are twenty years older than us, equally just latched on to it and were super excited about it. Now, we get requests for it a lot. It’s kind of an epic song tune to learn, since it’s really actually four songs in one [laughs], hence the ‘suite.’
So this is has been a really great way to get audiences involved and interested and has been a great way to dive in and learn some really tough tunes. And it’s definitely helped us improve as singers, too. We had to put a lot of work into it.
L4LM: I can imagine. This is really a particularly tough group to tackle. It was sort of a super-group after all, and all these guys were hand picked for this project because of their proven abilities as musicians as well as singer-songwriters. Not to mention that CSNY had an interesting dynamic surrounding the music: The intra-band relationships there were famously strained and often hostile. All that has always helped lend CSNY’s work and legacy a feeling of significance.
Maybe that’s part of why their popularity is so expansive, as you mentioned: This implicit significance that the music seems to have based on the star power of the people who created it. Or maybe it’s just that they wrote objectively great songs. What do you think about that binary in terms of writing music? Can you measure what makes a good song–a ‘classic’ song–simply by its musical merit, or does the context of a song’s creation play an inherent role in making a given song great?
EP: Yea, good question–I think that’s the million question, actually, that we all as songwriters are always trying to figure out [laughs]…What really speaks to people? And I would say the ‘best’ songs, the songs that I’m a fan of and the songs that I’m most proud of having written, have to do with a level of authenticity.
Its all about how, when something comes up in your life that’s true, that’s meaningful; whether it be painful, whether it be happy. It’s a moment that has an emotional impact on you, and therefore you feel like you can convey that to other people. And the hope is that you write that and other people listen and identify with it, and have an emotional connection as well. That, I think, is what speaks to the power of a great song.
You can catch Elliott Peck and Midnight North performing the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young at the upcoming Brooklyn Comes Alive! Inspired by the vibrant musical communities of Brooklyn and New Orleans, Brooklyn Comes Alive will turn three fantastic Williamsburg venues (Brooklyn Bowl, Schimanski, Music Hall of Williamsburg) and the surrounding city streets into a music lover’s game board for two full days on September 23rd and 24th. The unique homegrown event puts the focus on the musicians, curating dream team collaborations, tributes, and artist passion projects for two full days of incredible music both new and old.
The 2017 lineup is set to include hand-selected band lineups featuring all-star musicians like John Scofield, George Porter Jr. (The Meters), Vinnie Amico and Al Schnier (moe.), Bernard Purdie, Kofi Burbridge (Tedeschi Trucks Band), Joel Cummins, Ryan Stasik, and Kris Myers (Umphrey’s McGee), Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein (The Disco Biscuits), Mike Greenfield and Jesse Miller (Lotus), Jason Hann (String Cheese Incident), Alan Evans (Soulive), Cyril Neville (Neville Brothers), Henry Butler, Jon Cleary, Reed Mathis (Electric Beethoven), Michael League, Nate Werth, Chris Bullock, Robert “Sput” Searight, and Bob Lanzetti (Snarky Puppy), Jennifer Hartswick, James Casey, and Natalie Cressman (Trey Anastasio Band), and scores of others!
***Tickets Are On Sale Now!***
Brooklyn Comes Alive is now offering single day tickets, as well as a ticket payment plan for as low as $30/month. When checking out, just select “Monthly payments with Affirm” as your payment method. To find out more about ticketing, VIP options, and lodging, head to the festival website.