Phil at 80: Phil Lesh Talks Terrapin Crossroads in 2012

Mike Greenhaus on March 14, 2020
Phil at 80: Phil Lesh Talks Terrapin Crossroads in 2012

In honor of Phil Lesh’s 80th birthday on Sunday, we present this piece from our December 2012 issue.

Rambling with Levon Helm

We had the idea for Terrapin Crossroads when my sons and I played Levon’s Ramble up in Woodstock, N.Y., [in 2010]. It was such a magical day and we came away with a strong desire to do something like that at home. At first, we thought we’d do it at an established venue and take it over for one night a month. The Grateful Dead had been trying to do something like this for years – as far back as 1968, we were talking about having a satellite and beaming it to everybody. So the idea evolved into a place where we would have our own location where we would play and people would come to see us. It also evolved because we didn’t just want to have a nightclub. We wanted to have a place with food, music, art, dance, community outreach and nonprofit events – basically a cultural center.

We went to The Independent in San Francisco when Levon played there and I said, “We would really like to do something similar out here and would it be OK if we used the name Ramble?” He loved the idea and we have a portrait of Levon hanging in Terrapin Crossroads’ Family Room. He’s watching over us.

X Marks the Spot

We discovered this place [in San Rafael, Calif.] which was the Seafood Peddler restaurant. I had eaten there a few years ago and Furthur had done some shows there since they had a ballroom attached to the restaurant. Jill [my wife] and I were driving around and we drove in there just to look at it because we remembered playing there. There are these warehouse-like buildings behind the restaurant and someone had put graffiti of the Steal Your Face logo with “buckle up kids” written over it on one of those buildings. We both thought of it as a sign.

Grate Ideas

We are redoing the our main Grate Room to have windows and be more like a gathering place where we can have weddings, bar mitzvahs, dance events and even weekly salsa nights. The district we’re in the middle of is heavily populated with Latino immigrants and I want to learn to salsa dance.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Like Father, Like Sons

My sons Brian and Grahame bring both a new sensibility [when they play with me] and music that they like from their generation. They both write, play and sing, so we’ve been doing some of their originals. We’ve also been doing songs by Mumford & Sons, The Head & the Heart and Zac Brown Band. Their takes on Grateful Dead material are generally very fresh. For instance, the other night in Telluride, [Colo.], during “Stella Blue,” Grahame was playing this beautiful, beautiful stuff that I’ve never heard before. And Brian plays mandolin a lot on these shows, and he’ll just rip up something that just makes my knees buckle.

From Dylan to Adams

We’ve been covering albums in their entirety. We let everyone who’s playing do the preliminary work themselves. But we usually have 2-3 days of rehearsal, and when I say days, I mean eight-hour rehearsals. We grind down on those things, and as it turns out, it’s so much fun. We just did Blood on the Tracks and I’m looking to move on to more contemporary stuff. My sons and I have been talking about doing Ryan Adams’ Jacksonville City Nights.

Less and More

One of the main things that I’m trying to get going here at the Crossroads is to change up these tunes, even our own Grateful Dead tunes. One night, we did “Candyman” like a screaming up-tempo bluegrass song and it was absolutely killer. Given the relative scarcity of rehearsal time, we’re not always able to do everything we’d like to do with the tunes, but that’s going to change as we move forward and have fewer shows and more rehearsal time. We’re getting it off the ground now and that’s why we’re doing so many shows.

Temples of American Songs

Levon’s Rambles were like temples of American song. I’ve been listening to country music recently: Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum and especially this band Little Big Town. A lot of people haven’t heard of them – they do a four-part vocal harmony and it’s astonishing. Both my sons and I are working on some of their songs with all the vocal harmonies, and it’s going to be a big thrill. All those artists are feeding music into our singing. I secretly hold hope that maybe one or two of those guys would come out and play with us some time in the future.