080113 Phil Lesh & The Terrapin All Stars, San Rafael, CA

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On August 1st, 2013 I checked in to a Travelodge in San Rafael less than a mile from Terrapin Crossroads around 4pm.  I had the cooler full of beer on ice and dug in.  Phone calls were made and some friends came by to join me.  We had all been partying together in Lake Tahoe and here it was Jerry Day and we were all looking forward to the evening ahead.

A few years ago the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh started looking around for a place he could call his own.  Loosely based on Levon Helm’s Rambles, Phil sought a permanent venue where he could play music and it would be the fans that did the touring.  You can’t blame a septuagenarian transplant recipient for wanting to stick a little closer to home.

Terrapin Crossroads is basically a yacht club that has been converted to a restaurant with a separate performance area, with a capacity of perhaps 350 or so.  The restaurant is wooden and open, and out back is a large, groomed patio on the water.  The restaurant is open daily and there is live music regularly, often hosted by Phil Lesh and his family band.

August 1st is the anniversary of the birth of Jerry Garcia; many of us that miss him and the wonderful world that was the Grateful Dead respectfully refer to August 1st as Jerry Day.  I had tickets that would allow me to share this special day with Phil Lesh and a bunch of friends (both his and mine) and we couldn’t be happier.

We were going to walk to the venue but we all somehow squeezed into Sean’s car for the quick jaunt instead.  We got popped pounding drinks in the parking lot so we just hopped in line.  This was a ticketless event; all attendees had their names on a list and everyone seemed to get in just fine.

As soon as you entered the building you walk by the merch table where the usual items like t-shirts and posters were augmented by signed and numbered Jerry Garcia prints and more upper class fare.  The bar/restaurant area was large and inviting.  I grabbed a beer and walked through the open back doors.

The patio was beautiful.  A blend of stone and greenery outline a dining area seating perhaps 150 guests, with sailboats from the adjoining marina bobbing in the water behind a tiny arch that marked the stage.  I took all this in peripherally because sitting about twelve feet in front of me were Phil Lesh and Mike Gordon having dinner together.  Two of the greatest things that have ever happened to electric bass guitar were sitting right in front of me, chatting together and munching on tater tots.

Too much.

I join a large table of friends and got in line for dinner.  The food was included in the price of the evening’s ticket ($100) but rather than utilize their own restaurant Phil had hired catering.  The options were impressive.  There were grilled lobster tails and prime rib, crazy potato and vegetable ensembles, things were wrapped in bacon; it was the sort of fare you’d expect to find at an upper class wedding.  It was all-you-can-eat and everything was delicious, and the fact that Phil Lesh was getting seconds just a few people ahead of me in line only added to the experience.

There were a couple of opening bands, both of which were slightly understated and provided great music to socialize to.  Around the side of the patio was a patch of gravel that served as the smoking section, and the smoking was in no way restricted to tobacco.  Security didn’t care what people were smoking so long as people were standing on the gravel (“You gotta be off the grass to get on the grass!”).

Inside the busy bar area there was a table set up with a completely different offering of food, which eventually transformed into a dessert bar, centred around a huge tray full of cookies embossed with a little Jerry hand symbol iced on top.  After giving Mike Gordon a wide berth many times I finally approached him in the bar as he was breaking away from a couple of fans.

I shook his hand and thanked him for all the good times.  He seemed a bit confused and was about to ask me something when a couple of guys came up and hijacked the conversation with raves of Tahoe.  I couldn’t resist asking if the band preplanned playing the extra-long Tweezer and Mike instantly and genuinely assured me that it was not planned.

“But I wasn’t going to be the one that stopped it,” he quipped.

After dinner the crowd moved toward the stage, a wooden flowered arch that carried on the wedding analogy by looking conspicuously like where a couple might exchange vows.  My crew found a spot about eight feet from stage right.

Phil came out with a band that included his son Grahame and the late Neal Casal on guitars and they casually started to play Shakedown Street.  And that’s how the dream began.  

I say that because the rest of the night was nothing short of dream-like.  You know, you’re in someone’s backyard only it’s not a backyard and your favourite bass player is in the wedding band, only there was no wedding, and he starts playing all of your favourite songs just eight feet away.  And then your other favourite bass player gets up and joins him, only instead of playing his normal bass he’s playing a four-string Fender Precision, and then you meet a guy who went to your high school about 10,000 kilometres away and someone else says something like, “I rolled seventy-one numbers for Jerry’s birthday and you should have one!”

Oh, and in this dream there is always, always a beer in your hand.  And they end the set with Help>Slip>Franklin’s.

The part that unquestionably launched the evening into one of my all-time most amazing live music experiences was the encore.  Phil announced that the encore would be all-acoustic and would take place at the campfire on the venue’s side lawn.  I suspect the lack of amplification was due to this being the first outdoor show at the venue, and what a blessing it was.  I parked by the glowing fire and overheard someone tell another that stones from Red Rocks were brought there earlier in the day were and added to the firepit.

Soon Phil Lesh came out and stood by the campfire, flanked by three musicians.  They led us all through a four-song singalong starting with Friend Of The Devil. Deep Elem Blues really got the crowd involved trading off verses.  This was a bona-fide campfire jam with Phil smiling and pushing us all to join in.  By the time they got to Brokedown Palace people around me were literally weeping.

It was so wonderfully surreal.

When was the last time you went to a show where joy and sorrow mixed so beautifully that people were openly crying their eyes out?

And We Bid You Goodnight was the last straw, and couldn’t possibly have been followed.

I don’t remember how the crowd dissipated, but like most dreams they seemed to just fade away into the night.  We shared a crowded ride back to the hotel after many assurances of sobriety were made, and a short party later me and m’lady were alone, silently staring at one another.  Nothing more could be said.

I slept but I did not dream. I didn’t need to. 

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