Group at Work: Midnight North

Larson Sutton on January 27, 2017

It’s mid-December and the year-end holiday season is in a full-spirited sprint to the finish. or Grahame Lesh, singer/guitarist of Midnight North, it’s a welcome respite. “All of us are happy to be home for a little bit,” says Lesh. “We’ve been playing a lot.”

The quintet may be based just outside San Francisco in San Rafael, Calif., but the Marin County setting serves as more than just a domestic retreat. The Bay Area enclave is also the ensemble’s workspace and the setting for their recurring Sunday-night gig at Terrapin Crossroads, the venue owned and operated by the Lesh family. The band recently released a digital exclusive culled from performances recorded at the music hall throughout 2016, the pay-what-you-wish live album, Live at Terrapin Crossroads, which presents a terrific sample of what the locals have been enjoying for nearly five years.

Lesh says this weekly residency has been essential to the development of Midnight North, whose existence has coincided with the lifespan of the venue, itself, a space that gives like-minded musicians in the neighborhood a communal clubhouse. Thanks, in part, to friends like Chris Robinson and Tim and Nicki Bluhm, the buzz around both the band and its Terrapin Crossroads base has evolved into something not unlike
the late-‘60s San Francisco scene of Grahame’s father Phil Lesh.

“That community has been the most important thing,” says Grahame. “There is a cool thing being built here and, for our band, it’s an honor to be a part of it.”

Yet, it’s the weeks spent in a cramped van away from home that Lesh says has equally accelerated the group’s progress. With an upcoming studio album nearing completion, he hopes to take what they’ve learned over the past six months on the road and consolidate that growth into the sessions. The record will consist of songs that have been extensively tour-tested, but don’t expect this next record to be a mirror of a live show.

Instead, the album will weave the “escape valves” of Midnight North’s extended improvisational sections into tight, concise studio arrangements. Though the band is producing the release, Lesh pointedly credits trusted engineer David Simon-Baker (Jackie Greene, Los Lobos) with keeping them focused.

Midnight North’s live repertoire is also a showcase for  the group’s powerful three-part harmonies. On Terrapin, the trio of singers—Lesh, guitarist Elliott Peck and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Jordan—show off their dexterity on covers ranging from Crosby, Stills & Nash classics to the Dead-adopted “Viola Lee Blues.” It’s something, Lesh implies, that symbolizes and benefits the g oup in more ways than just musical.

“We are friends. I love singing with them. I love making music with them,” he says. “We just want to show our best to the world and have a little fun each time we do.”