Midnight North, a fine and merry band of young players from the San Francisco Bay Area, brought excellently honed country-rock and jam-band sensibilities to the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room on Friday night, to the delight of a small crew of dedicated fans and happy partiers. Up close and intimate, the band dove wholeheartedly into that milieu, connecting directly with the crowd that set to dancing off those post-election blues.
A dynamic and talented five-some that has woven a palpable group ethos, Midnight North includes Grahame Lesh on guitar and vocals, Elliott Peck on guitar, keyboard and vocals, Alex Jordan also on guitar, keyboard and organ and vocals, Alex Koford on drums, and Connor Croonn magnificently handling the bass guitar.
Let’s not even talk about Lesh being the son of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh – a fun fact, and of course a legion of fans to go with it. But the truth is, young Lesh stands completely fine on his own, with a musical aplomb and grace that escapes most, led by genuine talent. I’ve seen him play before, in other configurations with his dad’s bands, but finally seeing Midnight North as a complete ensemble performing its mostly original repertoire put a smile on my face for the future. The young people have got this, folks: both carrying on the revered tradition of folk music songwriting, and that of live rock ‘n’ roll shows, wherein joy and community prosper amidst impassioned music and poetic sensibilities.
Turns out I arrived early, while the band was still finishing its sound check. So I got a preview of strains of sweet country rock, the kind that encourages dip and swirl dance steps, which morphed through a spacey jam into a dark swampy sound, lifting the already gathered patrons to their feet before the show had even begun. Although I’d already expected the best, I found myself scribbling this note: “These guys are good.” Indeed: they’ve been touring regularly, while also holding down a weekly gigue (for three years now) at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, and putting out three albums in as many years (with a fourth album expected in the spring of 2017). Not to mention that they’ve been schooled around, and by, some of the best, the very best, in the business. That has to count for something, rub off a little?
Whatever the source, these folks already have mastered the art of the jam, exploratory picking and melodic forays, with an empathetic sensibility that combines poetic finesse with melodic orchestration. Rooted in country rock – a genre that lets the pitch-perfect, three-part harmonies of Peck, Lesh and Jordan shine – the band stretches out into full rock jamming and jazzy arrangements, atop a bluesy bedrock. Switching it up throughout the show, Peck and Jordan kept trading places on keyboards and guitars, each showcasing their respective guitar styles and prowess on keys. Peck and Lesh mostly shared lead vocals, with Jordan joining in on those deeply satisfying harmonies.
Jordan’s a natural performer, whaling on the organ, and flourishing a guitar style that echoed Garcia’s, at times, while exhibiting a showmanship all his own.
Midnight North unmistakably carves out their own sound, while calling upon those giants who’ve gone before them: Rodney Crowell, The Band, Emmy Lou Harris, The Grateful Dead. Lesh is a perfect example, very much his own person, at home on stage and in the distinctive tunes he and his mates unfurl. He’s quite a lyricist with his guitar, stalking the wild melody alongside good old rockabilly stylings, sometimes kicking up a hoedown, and at other times letting hints of the Dead’s deep space jams seep in.
By the third song – “The Lucky One,” from the band’s newest release, “Scarlet Skies” (2015) – the band seemed to have fully hit their stride, as Peck, Jordan and Lesh let fly those lush, three-part harmonies on full, velvety voices, adding the beauty of choral to the grit of guitars, and the funky beats Croonn captured running up and down the neck of his bass guitar like a possessed person. The result? Midnight North delivered catchy, eminently danceable original songs, and covered brilliantly the best of the classics.
For example, it nailed Crosby Stills & Nash/ Jefferson Airplane’s “Wooden Ships,” evocatively conveyed, with Lady Peck’s voice a haunting doppelganger for Grace Slick’s. Sharing the verses, Jordan, Lesh and Peck each took a turn on lead vocals. Following this, another original song, “San Francisco Rain,” from its debut album, “End of the Night,” showcased Lesh’s clear, solid voice and Peck’s elegant keyboard accompaniment. The song’s original lyrics, firmly rooted in the folk rock tradition and featuring strong choruses, beautiful poetics, and affirming themes of home and memory, are like all the band’s original numbers: smart, empathetically tuned, and beguiling of the eternal. A tear it up jam toward the song’s end, echoing lyrics about “a guitar moaning through the crashing ocean waves,” told me this band will soon crash on the national scene in a continuously increasing wave of stature and popularity.
Peck’s versatile voice draws easy comparisons to Bonnie Raitt or Emmy Lou, with powerfully belted notes and sweet crooning strength and sensitivity: she can wail the blues like no other, or unwind an enchanting lullaby with calm certainty and grace. In addition to her vocal strengths, its three-part harmony machine, and truly ingenious songwriting (with well-heeled rhythm and pacing), Midnight North’s superlative jams really stir the pot, with the band visibly relaxing into the groove it laid down, and then sinking deeper into the explorations that emerge.
Powerful renditions of classics, such as The Band’s “Ophelia,” showcased Croonn’s quirky and animated bass lines, loose and funky, and Koford’s steady backbeats on drums. Jordan’s organ solo held the flourishes of a seasoned bluesman, setting the crowd alight, before the band closed out the first set with a high-speed, rip-roaring cover of Emmy Lou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s “Luxury Liner, Forty Tons of Steel.” Of course, Peck’s voice is perfectly suited to that soaring soprano, and the band’s guitar work on this classic high-flying country number was truly remarkable – Lesh and Jordan tore it up on their guitars. (Ask my feet, which never missed a beat; nor did the band.)
Midnight North took the stage for a second set, launching into a swampy, bluesy tune to open, with those harmonies grabbing a note and stretching it out over octaves, band members rocking and swinging as they played. They offered up a rousing jam on a Tim Bluhm cover, “Squeaky Wheel,” in its “old and in the way” style that fits Midnight North’s ethos perfectly. The night was young, by most standards, and the songs kept flowing as the guitars sang and the singers’ voices soared. I can see that the next time Midnight North comes to Tahoe, we’ll be in the much larger Crown Room, and the dancing will continue long into the night, with the next wave of great lyrical jam bands rocking us through a brave new world. Together, we’ll make it. Just take your compass bearings from this band — head for midnight north.
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