I was fourteen when Bob Dylan joined forces with The Grateful Dead for a short six show bi-coastal tour. Suffice it to say, not only did I not attend these shows, but these juggernauts of music were, sadly, not yet on my musical radar. I was sixteen when I “got” the Grateful Dead and it was the Dead that, thank GOD, led me to Dylan. Ultimately, these two pillars of the Sixties music revolution would forever alter the way I looked at music but that did not happen in 1987. By all accounts, that might have been a good thing.
The tour, and the resulting live record released in 1989, were both poorly received. Some of the reviews of the shows and the album are so harsh they are actually funny to read. One reviewer of the album said, “if these were the stadium tour’s best performances, [I] pity anyone who actually sat through one of these concerts with a clear head.” Damn!
So here (2/6/16) we are nineteen years to the day of the release of really what can only be described as an unremarkable live document of an underwhelming tour that combined the efforts of two musical camps that prided themselves on the live performance. What do you do with that? You celebrate it. And that is what the Terrapin Family Band did at The Great American Music Hall this past Saturday night. They celebrated the music with command of the material and an eye on musicianship that elevated the songs and hinted at the majesty of what could have been.
The Terrapin Family Band is a musical unit born out of the now four year old Deadhead mecca in San Rafael called Terrapin Crossroads. They have spent years playing free gigs in the Terrapin bar for anyone who wants to listen, refining a sound that is rooted in but not a copy of The Grateful Dead. These guys take that music further through the instruments and voices of a new generation of players that were fortunate to just catch the twilight of Dead Tour before Jerry passed. These are players steeped in the music and the tradition of The Grateful Dead but free of the stony hippie stereotype. They play sometimes with a front man (namely Lesh or musical high caliber players like Scott Law) and sometimes just as a band. And each member of that band brings a different well of musical influences to the table while the common cor e of The Dead keeps them connected.
The crowd in line to get into the Great American that night was made up of older deadheads, folks that could have easily attended the original tour in ’87. More than a few of these folks probably did NOT sit through those shows with clear heads either. There was the guy I talked to before the band came out who had a silver cast of his ex-girlfriend’s nipple hanging on the same chain next to a wire wrapped gob of hash (seriously, dude had a big old chunk of hash) around his neck . He told me about his crazy New Years experiences while he took simultaneous hits from not one but three vape pens he held in his right hand. Another guy talked about the fact that his first Dead show was actually his first and last show at The Winterland. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that the room had serious Grateful Dead street cred.
And just a quick note on the room: The Great American Music Hall has to be one of my very favorite venues. It is a building steeped in a sordid history and you can feel it’s past crawl on your skin as the eyes from the plaster cherubs stare down upon you. It is quintessentially San Francisco and The Great American has witnessed to some of the weirdest and greatest moments in San Francisco’s unique musical heritage.
So when the band took the stage and launched into the instantly recognizable opening chords of “Tangled Up in Blue,” a hoarse roar went up into the air, pushed skyward by thrown up arms. Bodies began to wiggle and shake and it was suddenly on. Stu Allen, of whom it is safe to say falls in the “Jerry Clone” camp (and that is not to sell the man’s skills short in any way), trotted out the Garcia tone and signature licks – familiar but progressive. Ross James, whose beard could make him the long lost third Fabulous Furry Freak Brother, sang the lyrics with his own almost spoken word vocals that conjured Dylan while the steady backbone duo of Alex Koford and Ezra Lipp on drums fell into a perfect rhythm. Brian Rashap’s melodic bass lines punctuated the drums with a solid bottom end and Scott Guberman, an east coast transplant that came to us about a year ago, used his Hammond B-3 like a weapon, the Leslie cabinet cut skulls like a scythe. And Ross was supported by rhythms provided by Grahame Lesh in addition to Stu. The guitarists did not hold their respective rhythm and lead duties for long, however, as they swapped solos with the glance of an eye or nod of the head throughout the night. The music was expansive in the grand tradition of both icons and the band stretched the songs out as they should have been stretched. “Tangled Up in Blue” was the perfect opener and primed the audience.
As the set progressed, the band showed the depth of their vocal bullpen with Grahame Lesh taking lead vocals on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, “ Ross, Grahame, and Alex trading verses on “Masterpiece” and the whole band pitching in on “Maggie’s Farm.” The first set was highlighted with a guest appearance by The Mother Hips’ Greg Loiacono who took lead vocals on, “Simple Twist of Fate.” The meat of the set came with a dark and loud “Slow Train” led by Stu. The groove was sinister and the song slowly burned down into a strong, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” crooned out by Ross James.
Set two was marked by more Dylan standards that highlighted the talent of the players: “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” was a perfect choice for Lesh’s soaring vocals and Allen’s ringing Garcia-esque tone that contrasted perfectly with James’ crunchier leads when he took the reins. An obligatory “Rainy Day Women” included inhaling and exhaling participation from the crowd as everyone joined in for the signature, “EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED!” chorus. But it was Chuck Prophet’s work on “From a Buick Six” that really stuck the set. The jingly guitar chords mixed with Guberman’s B-3 accents set Chuck up for perfection as one of San Francisco’s best made his way through the tune. “Touch of Grey,” the only Grateful Dead offering of the night, was sung by Koford, who in his twenties, ironically led this admittedly graying crowd in the anthemic “we will get by” closing chorus.
The Terrapin Family Band plays every night at Terrapin, in some incarnation, for free. If you can make it to Terrapin Crossroads to listen expect fun, expect passion, care and above all expect to dance. If this is the legacy of The Grateful Dead, these guys carry the torch high.