Grahame Lesh leads Midnight North in a performance at The 8X10 in Baltimore on July 6, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
When you’re born the son of one of the most respected musicians of all time, it takes courage and perseverance to carve your own original path and still honor your heritage.
Grahame Lesh is navigating such an extraordinary scenario with fortitude and class as one of two leading voices and guitars driving Midnight North, a band that got its start about 10 years ago in San Francisco and honed its sound through many a night at Marin County’s late, great Terrapin Crossroads and by way of ambitious touring all across the country.
Their energetic road trips brought Midnight North to spots throughout the DMV in recent years, and at a recent stop at The 8X10 in Baltimore, Grahame showed that his band’s diligence and consideration is indeed paying off in the form of one of the most endearing and dynamic outfits on tour today.
Performing to an intimate late-night crowd in the cozy two-story Fed Hill venue on July 6, Midnight North used a convincing set of original songs and choice covers to distill a rich, inspirative sound that many have struggled to categorize, instead becoming consumed by it and the band’s instinctive presentation that can only come from true camaraderie.
Lesh, who as many know is the son of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, first began playing with bass player Connor O’Sullivan in the early 2010s. They connected with Elliot Peck, a respected multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter making a name for herself in the Bay Area, and not long after they were the resident band and performing almost daily at Terrapin Station, which opened back in 2012 and became a destination for not just fans of the Dead but of live music in general, as Phil’s vision of it evolving into a community gathering space was realized.
While so much of the band’s genesis has occurred within or not far from the community of the Grateful Dead and its followers, Lesh, Peck, and O’Sullivan — who has produced some of the band’s recordings — have strived to draw upon their wide influences to create original songs, different types of songs, that can ideally stand the test of time. In doing so, they blended styles or maneuvered in and out of them over the course of the band’s first three studio albums, a growth spurt that saw some adjustments in personnel.
Drummer Nathan Graham met Lesh at a gig in Philly in 2016 and by the following year was on tour with the band and helping prepare for what would be the fourth album. With the anticipated release of There’s Always A Story on Americana Vibes in 2021, Midnight North emerged from the challenges of the pandemic with an expansive and lasting offering that shows a band finding its stride and pushing itself to get better every night out.
Stream Midnight North’s 2021 studio release, There’s Always A Story, via Spotify:
Beginning The 8X10 set with “Wild Card,” the opening track on the newest record, Lesh’s rustic narration immediately grabbed those in the room and the thoughtful approach of the band was evident as its members eased their way into this mystical number. The trickling piano, a confluence of pure harmonization and a determined march of the drums saw this song blossom into a fascinating groove with an old-time foundation.
“Good Days,” also from the new album, brought Elliot to the mic, and her stunning, enthralling voice showed its range in this whimsical and invigorative jaunt. A confident and bold singer with an elegant tone, she can use it at varying speed and emotion to help color songs, and as a contrast to Grahame’s angle, she forms the duality of Midnight North’s vocal identity.
The band has been likened to acts of the past like Donna the Buffalo, but the powerful and distinct sounds created by Lesh and Peck position the band without easy modern comparison. With each member able to play more than one instrument, it’s allowed for experimentation along the way.
He wasn’t on the early albums, but Nate is instrumental in helping the band showcase the best of the early recordings, and his banjo skills shine on the newest one, too. And keyboardist T.J. Kanczuzewski, who received a thank you in the 2017 album notes, has become a key part of the touring squad, appearing at Midnight North’s last DC show and again in Baltimore.
Though its individuals didn’t wield each and every instrument used on the band’s albums, the group’s live sound the night in Fed Hill was even more compelling than those recordings suggest.
The rectifying “Back To California” from the band’s acclaimed 2017 release Under the Lights grooved through its own gloom to become a resilient, charming singalong with the audience leaning back to shout the words by the song’s end and Grahame curling over his Gibson to crank out a face-melting solo that gave another layer of character to the piece.
Before even forming Midnight North, Grahame had been putting in the work — woodshedding for lengthy periods and making appearances at festivals and at Levon Helm’s famed Midnight Rambles to play alongside his dad. In the days following the recent Baltimore show, Grahame — who so admirably exhibits great care for his father when playing at his side and helping him travel — would reunite with the elder Lesh for a quick run of shows as Phil & Friends that of course generated buzz in music media.
Watch Midnight North’s Live at Past Studio on the Road session, filmed recently in Lake Tahoe, via YouTube:
But rather than making a career out of covering Dead songs on a regularly basis, Grahame has surrounded himself with these likeminded musicians who — while always appreciative of the legendary San Francisco act — want to draw on all of their collective influences of rock, folk, country, blues, even some metal, punk and more.
As outright fans of Wilco, Lesh, Peck, and company have been covering “You’re Not Alone,” the title track on Mavis Staples’ 2010 album produced by Jeff Tweedy. And the version at The 8X10 showcased the bluesy rapture in Peck’s voice that seems to be there any time she wishes to use it.
Though he oftentimes conducts it in a studious, workmanlike manner, Grahame got to show off his marvelous, mind-bending mastery of the electric guitar with the treacherous impressions that make “Earthquakes” one of the more climactic offerings on the new record. Grahame led this turbulent, shredding onslaught and also carried the vocals while the rest of the group lit up around him to help give it a big band feel similar to its recorded form.
Midnight North’s network is full of outstanding artists from locations and generations far and wide. For a stretch of shows on the current tour, including its Charm City gig, the band has been joined by Mikaela Davis & Southern Star, a Rochester-based group on the rise.
An astounding harpist and singer who’s performed and recorded with an impressive list of artists, Davis joined Midnight North for back-to-back songs at The 8X10, including a vivid, surreal presentation of “Coyote” from There’s Always A Story, pairing her dulcet pitch with Peck’s and Lesh’s in a breathtaking unity.
“Greene County,” an instant classic recorded on both Under the Lights and the 2020 EP Down and Out In Mobile, saw Peck in show-stopping form, her frequency so natural, stirring and simply gorgeous. With the undeniably brilliant opening line — “I came for the weed, I stayed for the weather” — this track drew a big reaction out of the audience before it even reached its rousing chorus.
After an explosive take on The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” the group returned to its 2017 album with “Playing a Poor Hand Well,” another track featuring Elliot leading the vocals and one that rang out as signature at The 8X10 — it blended qualities of blues, jazz, rock, and soul and was taken up a notch up thanks to TK’s thrilling dose of organ down the backstretch.
“Under the Lights” is the title song of the 2017 album but it was also included on a couple other releases, including this year’s Selections from Levon Helm Studios. And it’s arguably the defining piece of songwriting from the early Midnight North catalogue. Luminous, nostalgic, this track trucks out of the gate and careens much like the band’s tours, and every time it’s played, the words seem to carry added emotion:
“Now the need has gone away / Off with believers who couldn’t stay / Somehow you’ve gotten good at this / It’s the rest of life that will give you fits. … Begin again, and now forever/ You’ve made the choice to do it better / Right now the last thing on your mind / This was a few nights under the lights / Then forty years on the grind.”
It segued into and then out of a mystifying, hard-rocking “Mississippi River” that invited Elliot’s most electrifying delivery of the night, seamlessly returning to the expeditious, reconciliation of “Under the Lights.”
Midnight North finished off the set with a cover of “Do I Look Worried” by their friends Tedeschi and Trucks before two more standouts from the 2021 album. “The Sailor and the Sea,” with its deep trenches and intoxicating bounce, was yet another decidedly different sound that seemed to veer from where this band might have first started, drifting toward audacious funk. Following it with the disorderly, spiraling record closer, “We’re Not Alone,” Midnight North only strengthened its case that it’s a refined, visionary band strengthened by songwriting both scrupulous and adventurous.
Stream Midnight North’s 2022 release, Selections from Levon Helm Studios, via Spotify:
Returning to encore, with the clock nearing 12 a.m., the band pleased some of the more seasoned fans in the room with a vibrant and impassioned take on a Grateful Dead favorite, “Scarlet Begonias.” And Midnight North would end the entire performance with a nod to another group from yesteryear, covering “Work To Do,” an Isley Brothers hit and another chance for Peck to use her inflection in an undeniably enticing and assured manner.
With so much buzz about the band in the past few years — Rolling Stone called it “the best new act” at the Peach Music Festival in 2018 — Midnight North’s stop last week in Baltimore felt overdue as the last few visits to the area have seen the group on the more white-collar stages of the nation’s capital.
But the band that arrived at The 8X10 was one that is committed to charting its own course, one earning its keep through long nights on the road and hard work in the studio and one constantly pushing itself to augment its sound as opposed to be content with it.
Putting himself in good company and leading this band all over the country, Lesh should be further applauded for building the identity of Midnight North without leaning on his father’s legacy or that of the Grateful Dead, as close as they are to him.
By going his own way and celebrating so many different forms of music with this promising band, he’s paying the ultimate respect to his dad and the long list of musicians who’ve influenced him.
Back to California
You Are Not Alone (Mavis Staples)
Coyote (with Mikaela Davis)
Greene County (with Mikaela Davis)
Don’t Let Me Down (The Beatles)
Playing a Poor Hand Well
Under The Lights
Under The Lights
Do I Look Worried (Tedeschi Trucks Band)
Sailor and the Sea
We’re Not Alone
Scarlet Begonias (Grateful Dead)
Work To Do (Isley Brothers)
Here are images of Midnight North, along with the night’s opener, Mikaela Davis & Southern Star, performing at The 8X10 in Baltimore on July 6, 2022.
Mikaela Davis & Southern Star