A gig in the Grate Room at Terrapin Crossroads has become a prestigious badge of honor for rock ‘n’ roll bands on the rise and this third weekend of March is another case in point. But this time it’s a brand new band rolling into town for what will be just their third and fourth gigs ever, following their first two shows in San Diego and Los Angeles earlier in the week in conjunction with the spring equinox. It’s an auspicious way for Ghost Light to hit the road for their debut tour, something of a fledgling rock supergroup that has some family connections to the scene here at Terrapin Crossroads created by Grateful Dead co-founder Phil Lesh.
Lead guitarist/bandleader Tom Hamilton has made a name for himself in recent years in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD), a band that has taken the art of performing Grateful Dead music to such a high octane level that many of their fans proclaim JRAD to be one of the best bands on Earth regardless of the fact that they’re technically a tribute band. Hamilton has also been an occasional player here at Terrapin when he’s in town, such as his starring role at Phil Lesh’s scintillating “Phriendsgiving” show this past November 12.
Another bandmate at the Phriendsgiving show was Ghost Light’s keyboard phenom Holly Bowling, a more frequent player at Terrapin since she resides in the Bay Area. Bowling has quickly risen to fame and acclaim in the jam rock scene due to her virtuoso solo piano arrangements of Phish and Grateful Dead songs, which in turn led to a handful of performances in Lesh’s all-star bands over the past year and a half. Fans were wowed by the synergistic chemistry between Hamilton and Bowling at the Phriendsgiving show, with some proclaiming it the best Phil Lesh & Friends show of 2017. Little did they know that Hamilton and Bowling already their own band in the works with the formation of Ghost Light.
The band is rounded out by three more seasoned players in drummer Scotty Zwang from Dopapod, bassist Steve Lyons formerly of Nico’s Gun, and guitarist/vocalist Raina Mullen who played alongside Hamilton in their former band American Babies. Ghost Light seems set to chart a bold course into space rock’s final frontier if previous collaborations between Hamilton and Bowling are any indicator, except that no one outside the band’s inner circle was really sure what they would sound like. Ghost Light quickly released recordings of their first two shows in the lead up to Terrapin, revealing a dynamic quintet that blends melodic jam rock with a bit of an alternative rock edge and strong songcraft as well as the expected ability to throw down ecstatic jams on classic rock gems from the likes of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.
Photo by David W. Clark
There’s great anticipation among the Terrapin faithful who witnessed the Phriendsgiving show as Ghost Light hits the stage on this Friday night and the band wastes no time jumping right into the sonic deep end. Bowling leads an exploratory jam that mesmerizes the audience right from the start with a flowing melodic goodness and full band interplay revealing that Ghost Light already has a special kind of chemistry right out of the gate. It’s only natural that they might fill in the repertoire with some of their past work, such as what appears to be a trend of one or two American Babies songs per night. This becomes a revelation for those who are not familiar with that catalog because the songs are so good, such as “Old Time Religion” here. It’s an upbeat tune featuring some strong harmonies that jams out in a variety of directions, including a honky-tonk roadhouse sort of section with Bowling crushing the piano solo.
Grahame Lesh has become an impressively seasoned musician himself over the past six years since the opening of Terrapin Crossroads with countless nights performing with the Terrapin Family Band, with his own group Midnight North and in a number of other bar shows (including a hot “Grateful Monday” performance with Hamilton the night after the Phriendsgiving show). He fits right in here as if he were a member of the group, helping spur the jam along and giving Ghost Light the official Terrapin stamp of approval in the process (as he did when rising Vermont jam-rockers Twiddle made their Terrapin Crossroads debut last year). That leads into an electrifying rendition of Jerry Garcia’s classic “Deal” to close the first set, with a high energy jam that surely has Garcia smiling down from the heavens.
Photo by David W. Clark
The first set has contained only four songs, but each one has received the type of extended crowd-pleasing jam treatment that’s always in favor in these parts. The second set opens in intriguing fashion with just Bowling alone on piano, with the other band members then following one by one to build up a layered jam that becomes more and more compelling as it grows. The jam emerges into the original “Lead Weight”, featuring a mesmerizing vocal from Mullen over simmering melodic psychedelia before the song evolves into another rocking jam that explores a wide sonic landscape. When the band returns to the chorus and Mullen sings “I’m going to figure it out this time,” it’s hard not to feel like some kind of spiritual breakthrough is on the horizon especially with Bowling powering a deep organ solo on the outro jam.
The band throws a well-received curveball with a charged version of the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” before offering up another original winner in “Diamond Eyes”, a dynamic bluesy rocker with a tightly syncopated groove that somehow feels both fresh and familiar. Bowling’s electric piano sets the melody over a tight beat from Zwang, giving Mullen a platform for a cathartic vocal about “waiting so long” that gives way to some face melting guitar from Hamilton. The band closes the show in high energy fashion with American Babies’ “Bullseye Blues”, igniting another dance-off in a rousing encore as Hamilton and Mullen deliver infectious harmonies that entice the audience to singing along on the “whoa-oh ohhh” outro.
It’s not long after the lights go up when Hamilton, Bowling, and Mullen are out on the floor greeting friends and fans, with Hamilton graciously taking a few questions from fans about the how the band and the repertoire have come together. What’s clear after night one is that Ghost Light isn’t just another jam band, because the alt-rock vibe in some of the songwriting and Mullen’s powerful vocals add an extra dimension that gives Ghost Light a pretty unique sonic flavor. The group’s down to earth vibe only enhances anticipation for night two, with the Saturday night show representing the only two-night stand on the maiden spring tour itinerary.
Photo by David W. Clark
The as yet untitled song in the key of D that opens the Saturday show feels like quintessential Ghost Light with a dynamic piano line from Bowling and a stirring vocal from Mullen over a flowing bass line from Lyons. The song soon moves into a fiery jam where Hamilton’s guitar melodies and Zwang’s percussive accents seem to dance with the piano and bass lines to generate a magical sound that at times feels like all the instruments are soloing, yet fully in sync with each other for an impressive 20-plus-minute jam to open the show.
Hamilton takes the lead vocal on American Babies’ “Streets of Brooklyn”, an upbeat number enhanced by soaring harmonies from Mullen and more of Bowling’s lively piano that seems to function like Phil Lesh’s bass lines in simultaneously filling both lead and rhythm forms. The song gives way to what Phish fans refer to as a “type II” jam that leaves the form of the song for a new sonic direction, although with Ghost Light being a brand new band it’s often hard to tell to what degree the jams are orchestrated versus fully improvisational because they seem to be so highly skilled in both forms of sonic alchemy.
Photo by Greg M. Schwartz
The group shows their wide diversity with Hamilton taking the vocal on a cover of Radiohead’s “There, There” that seems a bit odd at first, but Ghost Light soon draws the audience in as they build a powerful jam with Hamilton ripping it up on lead guitar over a heavy groove from Lyons and Zwang. Then Mullen stars on lead vocal as the band flips the script with a raucous rendition of Suzy Quatro’s “Wild One”, as Grahame Lesh re-joins the band to help close the first set with a scintillating jam that starts to sound like a cross between the Dead and The Band.
Photo by David W. Clark
Ghost Light keeps the surprises coming by opening the second set in an acoustic format which they employ to deliver some hypnotic tunes showcasing Mullen’s mesmerizing voice. The first song sounds like some sort of electric sky church sacred hymn with Mullen as high priestess. “Boy” finds Hamilton delivering some dazzling acoustic lead guitar and some shimmering harmonies with Mullen that conjure a compelling retro vibe. At the end of the song, Hamilton informs the audience that he was born on New Year’s Eve 1978 when his mom went into labor while she was watching Battlestar Galactica. This information seems to suggest one of rock’s great synchronicities, with 12/31/78 long revered as one of the Grateful Dead’s greatest shows of all time and Hamilton now leading both the hottest GD tribute band on Earth as well as Ghost Light.
The acoustic segment continues to dazzle with a stunning version of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” that features Hamilton and Mullen teaming on gorgeous harmonies, as well as some sensational melodic interplay between the guitars and Bowling’s spirited keys for a stellar jam. This sonic vibe seems to inform the Zeppish “Isosceles” that follows, a new tune with great potential that closes out the acoustic session. The band debuts another new tune with Hamilton on vocals for a brief version of the Americana-flavored “Nickels & Dimes” before closing out the set doing what they seem to do best, which is delivering a powerful song that also serves as a platform for some epic jamming.
“What Does It Mean to Be?” has a climactic feel with psychedelic guitar over a minor key groove and soul-searching vocals. Lyons employs an envelope filter to generate a bluesy funk that the guitars and keys weave around as Ghost Light engages the hyperdrive to soar into a spacey jam where the quintet again seems to all be soloing at once, yet in a collective unity for maximum impact before returning to the powerful chorus. But where most bands would end the song here, Ghost Light hits the hyperdrive again. Lyons’ bass leads the way in a bold new direction before Hamilton and Bowling follow his lead through a spacey bridge that emerges into a cosmic funk jam that feels like it could rock the Mos Eisley Cantina. The ecstatic jam eventually gives way to a spacey interlude that recalls Pink Floyd’s trip to the Dark Side of the Moon, before coming back to Earth with a final chorus to conclude an epic 27-minute journey.
Photo by David W. Clark
The elated audience is fired up and ready for anything as the quintet returns to the acoustic format for the encore. The mellow vibe of “Joeline” gives improvisational way to what seems like an unexpected turn into Van Halen’s “Jump”, catalyzed by a playful guitar tease that conjures a brief singalong on the ’80s rock classic. But as seems the case with most of Hamilton’s songs, “Joeline” develops into a multi-dimensional tune that goes deeper than it feels like it might at first. Ghost Light then caps the run with a crowd-pleasing singalong on the Dead’s classic “Friend of the Devil”, featuring some more of the band’s signature guitar/piano interplay.
Photo by Greg M. Schwartz
After the show, Mullen is out on the floor again where a fan inquires about her influences and a band she names is Soundgarden. A light bulb clicks upon re-listening to “Isosceles”, with powerful riffage that recalls something along the lines of classic Soundgarden such as “Burden in My Hand”. There aren’t many jam bands that also dig the grunge, or that have a dynamic female vocalist like Mullen… two elements that only enhance Ghost Light’s already considerable sonic power. The band has played only four shows, but it’s obvious that the quintet has been working hard in the rehearsal room to develop their songs and high-level chemistry. The future appears to be exceptionally bright for the Ghost Light (as they’ve dubbed themselves on Twitter) and if these shows are any indicator, the sky would seem to be the limit for what feels like 2018’s most promising new band.