Phil Lesh Believes in the Healing Power of Music

"It’s not so much a Phil Lesh band as it is a Terrapin band.”
"It’s not so much a Phil Lesh band as it is a Terrapin band.” Neal Casal
Bass player Phil Lesh is a founding member of The Grateful Dead, and he’s about to hit town with the Terrapin Family Band — one of many acts keeping The Dead’s jammy, improvisational style alive.

“In addition to myself,” Lesh says, “it’s got my son Grahame and some other musicians from the Terrapin Crossroads family, which is our restaurant, music venue, and community gathering spot that we have in California.”

That place has been open for five years now, and Lesh says it has brought together a “stable of musicians who perform there regularly — a musical family — and we drew from that group to form this band. It’s not so much a Phil Lesh band as it is a Terrapin band.”

And yes, they play mostly Grateful Dead songs. But Lesh tells us that they work in a few originals and other cover tunes, too.

The Terrapin Family Band is just one of Lesh’s current projects. In early March, he and another Dead co-founder, Bob Weir, kicked off a series of dates for their Bobby and Phil Duo tour.

“We just closed out two nights at Radio City Music Hall, and it was magnificent,” Lesh says. It’s the first time the pair has done anything like this together. “Everyone is busy, and Bob has Dead and Company, and they’re touring constantly.”

Lesh says he’s kicking himself that they didn’t join up sooner, but now “the stars are in alignment and it’s all working beautifully.”
Always loaded with ideas, he’s never without motivation.

“It’s a funny thing,” he says, “musicians have music in their heads all the time, whether it’s while walking down the street or taking a shower. There’s always music. In fact, sometimes I wish I could turn it off. It builds up some pressure and you have to play some music to let it out.”

"I introduce all the members and then add: And I’m Phil Lesh and I’m the luckiest man alive.”

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Lesh has nearly 60 years of performing under his belt, but never expected his career to go the way it did, being part of such an influential musical movement.

“No way at all did I think it would happen,” he says. “Except for a few improbable coincidences, it might not have happened at all. It really only came together when Jerry invited me to join the band in 1965. That literally came out of the blue.”

The Dead’s history has paralleled a lot of political and social changes, but Lesh says the current political climate doesn’t drive him to make music, because music is always needed.

“I always need to be out there playing music because that’s the vow we all took when we started. We weren’t into being rock stars. We wanted to bring a unique approach to improvised music and bring it to the people as much as possible. That has not changed and never will, so regardless of what’s going on, we are out there trying to transcend whatever the reality is at the moment.”

Lesh believes in music’s healing powers. “It always helps,” he says. “No matter the situation, to be able to come to a performance, lose your concerns and worries for a bit and join together in that kind of communion. It makes people feel less alone.”

He’s excited about non-musical aspects of his life, too, like being a grandfather. “Oh God, are you kidding me?” he says. “It’s the best thing in the world.” He’s pretty elated, in general.

“To sum up my history,” he says, “here’s what I do when I’m playing with the band. I introduce all the members and then add: And I’m Phil Lesh and I’m the luckiest man alive.”

Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band headline the Pot of Gold Music Festival on Saturday, March 17, at Rawhide, 5700 West North Loop Road in Chandler. Single-day tickets are $100. Multiday passes and VIP tickets are also available.

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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young