Normally, this time of year I have the good fortune of an annual rendezvous with my mom in the Crescent City for the grand-daddy of ‘em all, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Due to the pandemic postponing the event until (hopefully) October, my fully-vaccinated mother/Jazz Fest partner in crime instead flew out to the Bay Area from Philadelphia for an extended visit. Rather serendipitously, Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Allstars hastily announced three performances at nearby Terrapin Crossroads that coincided with her time in town.
We had not planned nor anticipated any live music in lieu of our beloved sojourn to NOLA, yet we were afforded the chance to make a different, equally-holy pilgrimage. 81 year-old Phil Lesh, co-founder of the Grateful Dead and living patriarch of la cosa nostra, would draft an ensemble to dig into his band’s iconic catalog, on the sacramental soil back where it all began.
Hard to believe that we would finally return to Terrapin, and I’d be able, at long last, to give my mother even just a taste of the GD serendipity, and their truth serum.
I hadn’t been back to Terrapin Crossroads Beach Park since the patio’s grand opening several years ago, when Soulive bredren Neal and Alan Evans joined Eric Krasno and Lesh for the unicorn Phil-Live performance to cut the ribbon. Appropriately enough, Eric would be back in the mix this evening for what proved to be a phenomenal display of intergenerational, improvisational magic, exploring some of the more treasured numbers from the hallowed Grateful Dead canon.
Once upon a time, we sometimes took live music, and maybe even hometown Phil shows, somewhat for granted. With his age, health battles, and the COVID-era realities, when it comes to Phil Lesh onstage playing music, tomorrow never knows, and it certainly is not promised. As such, it felt pretty cosmic that this convergence was going down while moms was in town. Even without the virus protocols, Phil rarely travels to tour anymore.
On Saturday, April 24th, after a glorious morning spent on an organic farm near Half Moon Bay, we hopped in the car and headed towards San Rafael for my mom’s first concert in fifteen months, and just my second time seeing live music in the pandemic era.
The Terrapin Allstars are a fluid, filial syndicate that embodies all of the treasured traditions and historical significance I was trying to impart to my mother as we traveled towards the surprise gig. The ensemble for this weekend’s engagement consisted of Phil’s son Grahame Lesh on rhythm guitar/vocals and Grahame’s Midnight North bandmates Elliot Peck (vocals) and Nathan Graham (drums). A brilliant solo pianist, as well as essential cog in the Ghost Light wheel, local phenom Holly Bowling handled the keyboards. Eric Krasno, a longtime collaborator in various Phil Lesh & Friends configurations, filled a prominent role in the performance on lead guitar and (often) lead vocals, too.
Terrapin Crossroads’ backyard patio was set up with social-distancing protocols in full effect: tables separated by several feet, masks on at all times, and security enforcing said guidelines and measures. The area behind the venue where the stage is situated buts up against the marina, so a strong breeze and overcast skies made for a chilly late-afternoon. Terrapin included a gluten-free pasta salad dish as dinner served, but most folks were up and dancing at their tables for the duration of the ninety-minute set.
And what a performance it was! A masked, locked, and loaded squadron took the stage just after 5:00 p.m. Pacific. They casually dropped into a measured, methodical “Help On the Way”, with Phil and drummer Graham constructing a sturdy pocket that set up the squad for success in short order. “Help” was delivered in the slow’d n’ throw’d ‘76 style, patient and laconic yet focused, intentional, and vibrant.
Grahame Lesh stepped up with the first lead vocal, while Kraz took some searing solos right out of the gate. Maybe most impressive early in the show was keyboardist Holly Bowling, tucked into the rear stage left; the beloved local piano prodigy colored just outside the lines with adventurous expressions throughout the set.
Peck, Krasno and the younger Lesh offered strong and slick vocals from jumpstreet, adding a glistening element to the tight grooves and soaring leads unspooling early and often. A slinky, sinister “Slipknot” offered an exploratory excursion that flirted with the darkness, yet retained the bulbous pocket and a downright surgical precision. The confident contingent flowed beautifully into a Krasno-sung “Franklin’s Tower” that included a sweet detour into the Allman Brothers Band’s timeless “Blue Sky” guitar harmonies before landing back in the “Franklin’s” coda with aplomb.
“Playin’ in the Band” was performed in somewhat of an early ’70s style, as Grahame Lesh found those off-kilter comp spaces, allowing Krasno a bit of rope to boulder his way out into the ether, emboldened by Phil’s rumbling foundations. Peck nailed the harmonies just right, and hit on the Donna Jean Playin’ scream with a certain sublime panache. Again Graham was rock solid on the kit, employing a less-is-more minimalist approach that made brilliant use of space and offered almost a hip-hop-like syncopation to Phil’s obtuse bass work.
“Dancin’ in the Street” was proffered in it’s late-’60s iteration, forgoing the next decade’s popular disco-funk arrangement for the OG interpolation. This Day Glo-styled version of the Martha & the Vandellas’ classic recalls the packed, free GD shows in the Panhandle; as the Haight raged out of control and the hippie dream was laid to rest.
On this TxR take, Holly Bowling was catching wreck on the piano with abandon. When they hit on the “Philadelphia, PA” line in the second verse, I shared a jubilant high-five with mom, who had gotten up from her seat and was no longer shivering in the blustery marina wind gusts. Generational traditions were alive and well both onstage, and among the deadicated too.
Then came the shock—a stirring bustout of “Unbroken Chain.” If I am ever asked to select a favorite Grateful Dead song, this one is invariably my first round draft pick. Ever since I was a teenager, first got From the Mars Hotel on cassette, and realized I never saw it on any tapes or setlists, I’ve maintained a lifelong love affair with “Unbroken Chain”.
I have been lucky to see Phil sing it live a few times before – once with the Grateful Dead and numerous more with Furthur and at Friends gigs through the years – yet it always catches me by surprise and tugs at the heartstrings. With my mom and fiance in tow, 81-years-young Phil Lesh braving the pandemic and the elements to belt out this seminal deep cut, I did not stand a chance.
The uniquely-Lesh vocal volleys between the father/son duo were touching from the start. My mind wandered to the Warfield many moons ago, when Phil—fresh from his liver transplant and leaping into a new lease on life—welcomed a very young Grahame and his brother Brian onstage for an a capella version of “Hello Old Friend” that saw nary a dry eye in the house.
During “Unbroken Chain”, there would be chills, goosebumps, and tears by the time the hounds began to bay, for it was so unexpected and damn, it delivered—an ornate, delicate, gripping reading that imparted all the wisdom and vulnerability inherent in this timeless chestnut. Phil’s quivering, poetic vocal spoke to all the years, the smiles and miles, trials and tribulations. Bowling and Krasno injected a youthful exuberance into the elixir, digging into a stirring outro jam for the heavens. Felt pretty good to bawl at a concert again.
Phil finished up with a short donor rap that seemed to really resonate with my mom. I have no doubt that witnessing a frail-yet-determined Phil Lesh up there onstage, losing himself in the joy fantastic while holding all of us in the palm of his hand for the umpteenth time, likely had a pretty profound effect on her, too.
We could have marched out to the car at that moment, full and happy, but then Phil and company dialed up “Lady with a Fan”, and it was gonna have to be waterworks part deux. There was no use resisting—not when they followed up such a raw, emotional “Unbroken” with a positively masterful, triumphant reading of “Terrapin Station” in all its shimmering glory. Grahame, Phil, and Elliot traded storytelling verses and joined together in holy harmony one last time. Bowling continued to astound with vivid, multi-hued flourishes that propelled the magnificent anthem into furthur dimensions. Once again, Krasno confidently stepped into a Garcia space oh so sacred, and invigorated cagey veterans and enthused newbies with a humble reverence and scorching new axe.
It was an expensive endeavor, pretty damn cold, and socially-distanced with strict code enforcement, yet there ain’t no place I’d rather be than on that Terrapin beach park back patio, flanked by my mother and my bride-to-be. The three of us together again, maybe not in the Big Easy for a second straight spring, but instead soaking in the music and familial traditions of the good ol’ Grateful Dead, courtesy of a patriarch, the bass-bombin’ ageless wonder himself, Mr. Phil Lesh.
Forgiveness is the key to every door.
Next year in New Orleans.
Scroll down to check out the setlist, a full audio recording, and a selection of crowd-shot videos from the Phil Lesh & Terrapin Allstars performance below.
Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Allstars – “Unbroken Chain” – 4/24/91
Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Allstars – “Terrapin Station” – 4/24/91
Phil Lesh & Terrapin Allstars – Terrapin Crossroads Backyard – 4/24/21 – Full Audio
[Audio: Vibe Junkie Radio]
Setlist: Phil Lesh & Terrapin Allstars | Terrapin Crossroads Beach Park – The Backyard | 4/24/21
Set: Help on the Way -> Slipknot! -> Franklin’s Tower Minglewood Blues Playing in the Band Dancing in the Street Unbroken Chain
Encore: Terrapin Station
Lineup: Phil Lesh, Eric Krasno, Grahame Lesh, Holly Bowling, Elliot Peck, Nathan Graham