When Grahame Lesh decided to enter his high school talent show in 2003, he asked his dad, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, if he’d join him to perform the band’s hippie-era anthem “Sugar Magnolia.”
Phil, 77, and Grahame, 30, now play together regularly, anchoring the Terrapin Family Band, Phil’s latest Dead-centric project that grew out of regular gigs at Terrapin Crossroads, the family’s bar, restaurant and music venue in San Rafael, Calif.
“People ask me what it’s like to play music with my son and I say, ‘It’s the best thing in the whole universe.’ I can’t even describe it,” Phil says. “A lot of times when we’re together we’re not so much like father and son as we are just a couple of musicians.”
Grahame, for his part, has tried to come at music in his own way. A self-taught guitarist who picked up the six-string at 13, Grahame grew up playing in garage bands and learning metal riffs. He now leads the country rock band Midnight North, which gigs weekly at Terrapin Crossroads and tours the country.
Grahame didn’t start pursuing music seriously until the venue opened in 2011, and he had a non-music job until a few years ago. Phil and his wife, Jill, encouraged Grahame and his younger brother, Brian, to play music but never pushed it as a career path.
“By the time I started picking up guitar they were like, yeah, as long as you do something [musical] we’re cool with it. … It doesn’t have to be your job or anything,” Grahame says. “I’m sure they’re happy that it is.”
“It’s so delightful that it turned out the way it did,” Phil says. “Everything he’s done has been entirely on his own effort. It was like a matter of policy in a way. I didn’t want to push. I wanted them to be who they were. I’m so glad it didn’t a skip a generation.”
Grahame grew up around music, touring with the Dead as a child and, after Jerry Garcia died, Phil Lesh and Friends. He actually saw his first show during the Dead’s 1986 New Year’s Eve run in Oakland, Calif., when he was just 2 weeks old.
“When he got older, he would sometimes sit on a road case behind Jerry and I think he might have internalized that heavily,” Phil says.
When Terrapin Crossroads opened, Grahame started playing Dead songs regularly for the first time with his friends and his dad. The Terrapin Family Band has been through a few permutations but settled into its core lineup — with drummer Alex Koford, keyboardist Jason Crosby and guitarist Ross James — last year. They play a mix of Dead songs and classic rock covers, and even do an original, “Galilee,” that Brian wrote.
The band has become Phil’s most consistent group in years and has reinvigorated him enough that he’s slowly returning to touring after mostly playing shows in California and New York since the Dead’s farewell concerts in 2015. The Terrapin Family Band’s first real tour begins Wednesday at The Anthem, with special guests Robert Randolph and Nicki Bluhm sitting in.
“This is pretty close to the ideal of the Grateful Dead, of each musician being like a finger on a hand, and it blends together really well,” Phil says.
“I think we’re playing a more energetic rendition of these songs than a lot of bands do these days, more than the Dead did, other than certain eras,” Grahame says.
Maybe Phil is just a proud dad, but he’s constantly impressed by Grahame’s approach to music.
“The way he thinks about music and the way he strings his thoughts together, he really has a feeling for the long line,” Phil says. “So he’s thinking ahead and at the same time he’s open to the moment when you throw all the rules out the window and you just wail. It is so enjoyable for me to play with somebody like that. If I had my druthers I’d play with him every time. Because of the way he plays. But it makes it even better because he’s my son.”
The Anthem, 901 Wharf St. SW; Wed., 7:30 p.m., $75-$125.
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