The stars aligned just right in San Francisco on November 3rd at Midnight North’s 3½-hour show at the venerable Great American Music Hall, as an epic two-set show transpired that included fine contributions from Grateful Dead co-founders Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, two core members of Vermont reggae-rock jamsters Twiddle, the Northbound Horns, and good old Bay Area guitar gunslinger Ross James. For the week leading up to the show, Midnight North on social media teased some special guest hints, up to and including the day of the show when Weir was announced.
Praise must be bestowed on the set list writers for this one, who put together all the elements into a flowing, sensible package. Even with all of the guests coming and going to the stage of the hundred-year-old, 600-capacity, ornately decorated two-tiered concert hall, which was the site of a famous Grateful Dead concert in the summer of 1975, Midnight North remained the focus of the activities and got to feature seven of the 11 tracks from the band’s current project, “Under the Lights.”
Midnight North is a talented band has been gaining steady momentum over the last three years, and rightfully so, with albums of finely crafted songs in the varietals of rock, alt-pop, alt-country, and more. Way past the notion of “Phil’s son’s band” Midnight North’s unique strengths include the collective skills of its excellent players, including Grahame Lesh (lead guitarist, vocals, songwriter), Elliott Peck (guitar, keyboards, vocals, songwriter), Conner Croon (bass, mandolin), Alex Jordan (keyboards, guitars, vocals), and Sean Nelson (drummer for West Coast shows). Songs are strong, with excellent lyrical portions as well as the meaningful jams that come out of those stanzas. And the players themselves are all poised, professional, affable, and easy-going, with no airs of inflated egos.
Five Midnight North songs opened the show – good, varied rockers that featured alternating solo and harmonic vocals of Elliott Peck and Grahame Lesh, four of which were from the new record. Next up, Twiddle’s Mihali Savoulidis and Ryan Dempsey were invited onstage for an excellent rendering of “Lost in the Cold,” a reggae-esque Twiddle song that featured Savoulidis on vocals and lead guitar and Dempsey seated at a keyboard bench along with Jordan.
Five Midnight North songs opened the show – good, varied rockers that featured alternating solo and harmonic vocals of Elliott Peck and Grahame Lesh, four of which were from the new record. Next up, Twiddle’s Mihali Savoulidis and Ryan Dempsey were invited onstage for an excellent rendering of “Lost in the Cold,” a reggae- esque Twiddle song that featured Savoulidis on vocals and lead guitar and Dempsey seated at a keyboard bench along with Jordan.
But the undeniable highlights of the evening came during the closing sequence of the first set, when Bob Weir was introduced and first regaled onlookers with a sweet Midnight North-backed version of “Only a River,” a sensitive cowboy ballad from Weir’s recent “Blue Mountain” project. Next, Weir switched from a blue D’Angelico guitar to a brown Fender while Grahame Lesh introduced Phil Lesh, who quickly plugged in and was raring to go in a minute. And then it happened, 30 minutes of high- falootin ’ unbridled Grateful Dead-ness, with high-octane, soul shaking versions of The Grateful Dead’s “The Music Never Stopped,” a complete “Playin’ in the Band,” and “Franklin’s Tower.”
Weir’s seminal “The Music Never Stopped” featured Midnight North’s Peck taking the vocal parts that Donna Godchaux assumed in the 1970s, with the “There’s a band out on the highway; they're high- steppin ’ into town…” thrilling the audience. Weir’s guitar and Phil Lesh’s heavy bass lines -- and nods of non-verbal communication – gelled immediately as Midnight North’s Grahame Lesh wailed properly and purposefully on the guitar during the song’s jam portion.
After Elliott asked the spectators, “Are you guys having any fun yet?,” and Weir piggybacked, “Of course you are!” the familiar countdown of “3…5…7, 8, 9, 10” signaled the start of one of Weir’s most enduring tunes, “Playin’ in the Band.” The cohesiveness onstage was solid, with Phil visibly enjoying himself while booming on the bass and sharing a mic with Grahame on the refrains of “Playin’, playin’ in the band; daybreak, daybreak on the land.” Peck again conjured up the ‘70s version of the song singing Donna Godchaux’s vocal harmony spots. The inclusion of horns (Michael Bello, Liz Larson, and Jay Jordan) brought forth recollections of the version of “Playin’ in the Band” that was on Weir’s debut record, “Ace,” all those years ago. And as Phil dominated on the bass, Midnight North bass player Connor Croon offered mandolin instrumentation on the 10-minute piece.
Then, with 10 people already on the smallish stage, Grahame invited two more, Twiddle’s Mihali Savoulidis (guitar and vocals) and Ryan Dempsey (keyboards) for the first set closer, “Franklin’s Tower.” With Grahame Lesh, Weir, Peck, and Phil Lesh taking vocal turns on the song’s many verses, “Franklin’s Tower’s” 11-minute romp turned into an epic spectacular, and affirmed the show’s grand status. Handshakes, hugs, and collective smiles followed as everyone on and off-stage collected themselves and got tuned for a second set.
The second set begun again with a couple of newer Midnight North songs, “Roamin’” and “Miss M,” followed by Peck’s first-ever performance of John Prine’s classic, “Angel From Montgomery.” Peck’s vocals were sublime and the backing players’ full-band approach to the ballad worked well. Next, Savouldis again fronted the band, on Twiddle’s “When It Rains It Pours,” followed by Peck’s “The Highway Song.”
Ross James, a local favorite and important cog in the Terrapin Family Band and Cosmic Twang jumped into the mix to lead a party-hearty version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” before Grahame again invited his dad onto the stage. James and the elder Lesh played with the band on Grahame Lesh’s “San Francisco Rain,” and then Phil stayed out there till the end, on The Grateful Dead’s “Mr. Charlie” and sweet Midnight North ballad, “Greene Country.” Savouldis and Dempsey returned, with Phil still onstage for the encore of the new album’s title track, “Under the Lights.” Peck said after the show, “The whole evening was amazing and felt like a big family both on and off the stage!”