The 2018 installment of the Pot Of Gold Musical Festival features one of the spring’s most delectable-looking lineups. Returning to Rawhide Western Town & Event Center in Chandler, Arizona March 16 – 18, it includes Russ, Rebelution, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, The Infamous Stringdusters … and no less than Phil Lesh, who tops the mighty bill with his Terrapin Family Band.
The Terrapin Family Band has emerged as Lesh’s most frequent pursuit, and in 2017, had a breakout year, moving beyond their regular gigs at Terrapin Crossroads and in New York City and spending more time on the road.
As Lesh tells us, the TFB — which often brings guests along but officially includes Lesh, Grahame Lesh, Ross James, Jason Crosby and Alex Koford — is priority one and will remain so in the new year. Phil himself will be plenty busy, though, with more Phil & Friends gigs in the works, and, most intriguingly, a set of duo shows with Bob Weir whose format he describes as “stimulating” in its freedom.
JAMBASE: You will be part of a really exciting lineup at the Pot Of Gold festival in Arizona this March. You’ve also just been announced for Summer Camp. How are you picking your gigs these days?
PHIL LESH: Well, mostly we’re picking them so we can showcase the Family Band. It’s been working out really well. We are trying to be a little bit picky, yes.
JAMBASE: I remember seeing an incarnation of the Family Band with you at the Gathering Of The Vibes a few years ago, and then a few weeks ago in New York, and obviously the growth in it over time. I’m curious, how did you decide the Family Band was road ready?
PL: It’s kind of funny. I wasn’t part of the Family Band. I didn’t play with the original Terrapin Family Band. Both my sons were in it, and it was mostly the younger musicians. But as time went on, I started playing with these guys more often, and it got to the point where I enjoy playing with them more than anybody. We decided to make a band out of it officially and take it out in the world.
JAMBASE: So your focus will continue to be shows with the Family Band?
PL: Yeah, with the Family Band. And of course I’ll still do a few Phil & Friends shows here and there. But the focus is pretty much on the Family Band.
JAMBASE: Looking back on the past year, any particularly memorable shows? Lockn’ comes to mind of course.
PL: There was a run we just did, in Chicago, and then we went to Nashville and played a 500-seat place there, a club. It was one of the greatest audiences I’ve ever experienced outside of New York City. They were so enthusiastic and they really inspired us so we delivered a pretty good show.
JAMBASE: You’ve had guests out with the Family Band too, including Nicki Bluhm and Eric Krasno. How do you pick which guests to accompany the band?
PL: Well, of course, a lot of it does depend on who is available. But mostly we try to optimize the folks that have been a part of the Terrapin Family of musicians as much as we can. There are some notable exceptions. I’m looking forward to something with Stanley Jordan again, for example.
JAMBASE: How do you bring people like Stanley, or Eric Krasno, or Robert Randolph into the Family Band orbit?
PL: We’ve had a connection with Robert for a while, he did some Phil & Friends gigs several years ago. I don’t know, a lot of it just happens. Peter Shapiro for instance introduced us to Eric, so some of those come through Peter. But we put out the vibe that we’re looking for some great musicians and they somehow find us.
JAMBASE: You mentioned the Terrapin Family and the scene created at Terrapin Crossroads, which is really inviting. Five years in, is Terrapin Crossroads where you expected it to be?
PL: We had never been in the restaurant business before. The place we got came with a 150 seat restaurant and we really didn’t have a vision of where we wanted it go at first. We knew that we wanted every aspect of it to be the best it possibly could. We put together a great team, including a fantastic kitchen staff who’ve been with us since the beginning. The whole team is finally coming together as a unit and as a family. It’s as good a place as it ever has been and could have been, so now we just have to find a way to keep that going.
JAMBASE: Did anything surprise you about being a venue and restaurant owner?
PL: Not really anything, no. We all knew how it was going to be, and that it was going to be tough when we started out with the restaurant attached. Personally, this is my favorite place to play just about anywhere. We built the room for our music and it turned out very well. We have a very loyal group of regulars that support us constantly. So I don’t know. I’m not really surprised by much anymore.
JAMBASE: Ahead of this year you announced that you’d focus throughout 2017 on 1977, a seminal year for the Grateful Dead. Should we expect a theme in 2018 and a similarly aggressive dance card of gigs?
PL: I would just have to say don’t expect anything at all. That’s the answer. [laughs]
JAMBASE: Turning to another batch of dates coming up in March, you’ll be out for shows as a duo with Bob Weir. Why is now the time to do this?
PL: We ended up doing a spontaneous thing, and then did it as part of a gig up on Mt. Tamalpais. It brought back to me how much I love playing with Bob. In so many ways, this is the ideal situation, just the two of us. We can really hear what we’re doing, and we can keep back and react. It’s exciting, and the freedom is stimulating.
JAMBASE: And this will be just you and Bob onstage during these shows?
PL: Mostly. We may get guests for part of one of the sets each night.
JAMBASE: And you mentioned the freedom in this format. Is that because it limits what you can play and you work around that, or because it opens it up?
PL: It opens it up. We’re going to reinvent these tunes. We can’t do them the way the Grateful Dead did them. We don’t have a band. The idea is to reinvent as many of the tunes as possible.
JAMBASE: What’s an example of one you’re working on?
PL: Well, “Dark Star.” We did that one already on Mt. Tamalpais.
JAMBASE: Fair enough. Phil, you mentioned continuing to do select Phil & Friends shows. The one lineup people always ask about is the Q. That involves scheduling five very busy people, but do you think there will be more Q shows?
PL: Any chance I get I would love to go to the Q. As you noted it’s so complicated to do, but we always have that in our back pocket. We’re constantly communicating with everybody seeing whether or not it can be done. Stay tuned, I would say.
JAMBASE: As far as future lineups, you mentioned that people come to you as they pick up the vibe, but is there anyone you’d really like to play with whom you haven’t? To bring in?
PL: Not really, not really. I kind of feel like, if I tried too hard to bring somebody into the orbit, it kind of compromises it somehow. We put the vibe out into the universe. The word gets out. You want to come and play free. There’s been no dearth of interested musicians.