Being the child of a prominent musician can be daunting. On one hand, you have the fear of comparison if you decide to create music yourself—but on the other hand, you arguably have the best advice and guidance you could possibly get.
Grahame Lesh, son of the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, embraces these positives, and has made a name for himself with his band Midnight North. The San Francisco-based group has been crafting a folk-rock sound that expands at times into funk jams (“The Sailor and the Sea’’), country tales (“Greene Country”) and blues rock (“Echoes”). The band’s recent album, There’s Always a Story, features the group’s most solid product yet, both in terms of production and songwriting.
Midnight North will perform at the Cypress in Reno on Thursday, Dec. 8.
“We’ve been touring pretty consistently in the last year and a half or so, like everyone else, after taking a break for almost all of 2020 and most of 2021,” Lesh said during a recent phone interview. “We’re back out there. We put an album out called There’s Always a Story about a year ago, so we’re really excited to be still out playing these songs that we’ve finally got out into the world. This show in Reno is going to be one of the last ones of the year for us, and what’s cool for us is to be relatively close to home, which is San Francisco for some of us, but our bass-player lives in Nevada City.”
COVID-19’s temporary elimination of live shows disrupted the music industry’s usual cycle of writing an album, and then touring behind it. Lesh explained how Midnight North has always done things a bit different.
“We’ve never really tied ourselves to an album cycle quite as much,” he said. “We’re kind of just touring whenever we have the time to, and that’s what we’ve been doing the last five, six years. I can definitely see the sort of trends in the industry going more in the direction of what we’ve already been doing, which is trying to build our live audience.”
In May, the band released Selections From Levon Helm Studios, a 10-track live album featuring explosive performances.
“We love being in the studio. We love writing songs, and we love creating new music, but we build our audience more through our live shows, and through our tour,” said Lesh. “I could definitely see the industry going more in that direction, but for us, it won’t be a huge change, because it’s kind of what we’ve been doing.
“It’s just kind of what we’ve always done, even from back when we all had day jobs, and were just touring when we literally could have the time to take off together, just weekends or anything like that,” he said. “We’ve got a routine that works for us. It’s shorter runs; we’re not out for two months at a time, but we do it a lot, and we’ve sort of found the locations, the places in the country, that really respond to us, so we try to hit those places as much as we can.”
The members of Midnight North are in positions now where they can focus solely on music.
“We’re lucky,” said Lesh. “We came out of the scene in the Bay Area, around the music venue Terrapin Crossroads. We would play all the time there, but there would also just be music every night, and it would be some combination of us with a bunch of friends playing all the time. That scene opened up a lot of doors for us to pursue our individual music careers, as well as our band’s career.”
I was curious how the diverse San Francisco music scene has shaped the Midnight North’s sound—and learned that it can be hard to escape the influence of the Grateful Dead, familial ties aside.
“We’re less of a jam band and more of a songwriter band, but our foundational piece, at least through my experience, has been the Grateful Dead,” Lesh said. “That’s such a Bay Area staple. … The more recent bands that have come out of there that we’ve made friends with … I find them sort of seeping into our sound—The Mother Hips and The Stone Foxes. It’s been cool just to see that the sounds of all of our friends get absorbed, and hopefully the same thing is happening in the other direction, too. It’s a cool melting pot musically.”
Lesh and the Midnight North have often shared stages with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, and have had many opportunities come their way because of the scene that the Dead cultivated.
“I’m very lucky for the family that I’m a part of, and we are as a band, too, to be a part of the community that was built out of my dad’s music,” Lesh said. “Musically, we make different kinds of music than the Grateful Dead. We get the occasional person who’s expecting to hear us jam more or play more Dead songs, but those are good problems to have. They’re great songs, and sometimes we do play some of them, but we do feel like we write good songs as well, and that they fit together and that we have our own sound. There’s no downside to having the ear of someone like my dad, who we are lucky enough really likes our music and plays with us sometimes.”
There’s Always a Story was the band’s pandemic project, written and recorded throughout the shutdowns.
“(Remote recording) gave us this opportunity, because the album wasn’t done at that point … and everyone sort of came up with stuff in their home studios, or some friends’ studios nearby, and we finished it remotely,” said Lesh. “This was the first time we’d written or completed the writing in the studio, which was really cool for us. Normally, we’ll come together with myself or the other singer, Elliott (Peck), and one of the two of us will sort of bring in songs mostly fully formed, and we’re kind of just teaching the band. This time, the songs were a little less finished, so that creative process was in the studio, which was bringing our expertise from our live chemistry. I felt like it really shone through.”
Lesh considers There’s Always a Story to be Midnight North’s best album yet.
“Because we’re not a jam band, but a band that can kind of jam, what we do with all these songs is we build what we call ‘escape valves’ into them that we can take into different directions live … and play guitar a little longer, or have a little instrumental break or whatever,” he said. “… At this point, we’ve gotten almost two years of really drilling (the songs), so we’re feeling good about them now, which is awesome. If you ask how it stacks up to the rest of our back catalog, it’s our best album. I feel more and more confident about our songwriting and our performing as we go along and grow. I can say that very confidently.”
Midnight North will perform with Rivvrs at 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 8, at Cypress Reno 761 S Virginia St., in Reno. Tickets are $12 in advance, or $15 at the door. For more information, visit cypressreno.com.