Melvin Seals and JGB Keep the Flame Burning at Terrapin Crossroads

There’s a spiritual sustenance of sorts in Garcia’s music that can be hard to put a finger on per se, but the continuing demand and praise for these celestial harmonics is empirical evidence of its existence.
Melvin Seals and JGB

Historical accounts indicate that the Mission San Rafael Arcangel was founded in 1817 as a medical branch of Mission San Francisco, due to how the North Bay location was sunnier and more protected from the elements than the often foggy, damp and windy climate in San Francisco. This made for a strategic retreat for the sick or ailing. Named after Saint Rafael, the patron saint of good health and travelers, the city of San Rafael remains a warm and sunny refuge for travelers and music fans alike.

Many fans of Bay Area music history are known for worshipping Saint Jerome, just one of many affectionate nicknames for Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia. There’s even a Facebook group named “The Followers of Saint Jerome”, which bills itself as “Dead-icated to the music and followers of the nine-fingered prophet along the Golden Road of Unlimited Devotion…” While Garcia’s personal missionary work on Earth concluded with his untimely departure from the planet in 1995, his acolytes and disciples have endeavored to keep his musical mission’s flame burning. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh has been a leading practitioner in this regard, even going so far as to open a San Rafael-based club where the band’s music lives on a daily basis.

Hence Terrapin Crossroads was christened in 2012, becoming a mecca of sorts for the music’s many followers. Melvin Seals, another one of Garcia’s closest musical compadres, is a keeper of the flame as well. Seals occupied the keyboard chair in the Jerry Garcia Band from 1980-1995 and continues to tour behind the band’s repertoire because this music has a life of its own and wants to be heard. There’s a spiritual sustenance of sorts in Garcia’s music that can be hard to put a finger on per se, but the continuing demand and praise for these celestial harmonics is empirical evidence of its existence. Lesh and his crew of Terrapin Allstars have the GD repertoire well covered, but the Jerry Garcia Band repertoire is less served and so Seals conducts the musical sermons where the songs can shine on.

There’s a homecoming vibe when Melvin Seals and JGB play in the Grate Room at Terrapin Crossroads and this weekend is a bonanza with Seals headlining Friday and Saturday nights in the Grate Room before joining Phil Lesh & Friends as keyboardist for a Sunday blowout in “the Backyard”. Seals’ band is in a transitional phase here with regular guitarist Dave Hebert sidelined indefinitely by illness and drummer Pete Lavezzoli out with a day-to-day injury. But the influence of Saint Jerome is such that there’s always another able-bodied disciple ready to step in to help keep services on schedule. In this case, Terrapin Allstar Ezra Lipp fills the drum seat with aplomb while guitarist Zach Nugent has been called up from Vermont’s triple-A league of sorts, where he’s rocked the Garcia chair in recent years with Dead Set and Cats Under the Stars.

Both players prove ready for the big leagues during an early jam on the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, as Seals leads an adventurous exploration of one of Garcia’s most charming covers. The harmony vocals of Shirley Starks and Cheryl Rucker are a key aspect of the JGB sound as well, with their angelic voices sounding ever-luminescent here. At first glance, Nugent appears perhaps a bit young for the Garcia role. But he must be an old soul because when his voice is surrounded by the ladies’ harmonies and Seals’ dynamic Hammond B3 organ, it fits right in. One could even close their eyes for a moment and feel as if they might be hearing Garcia and Seals back at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater.

Bassist John-Paul McLean makes a delightful star turn of his own when he steps up toward the end of the first set for lead vocals on the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”. It’s a pleasantly surprising selection since it wasn’t a regular in the Garcia repertoire, but it seems appropo here as a nod to that ever-present San Rafael sunshine where there hasn’t been an overcast day all summer. The band then rides that bright energy into a charged rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”, a JGB staple that became one of Garcia’s top jam vehicles. Seals leads a dazzling trip through the light-fantastic with uplifting organ work that generates a magic carpet for the congregation to ride. Nugent, Lipp and McLean make a dynamic trio on the jam with Nugent tearing up the classic Garcia riffage for a big finish that leaves the audience elated at setbreak.

The second set is a cathartic triumph from start to finish. “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox” kicks it off with a vibrant jam on the working man’s lament to get the room moving, before a sublime rendition of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” that fits in like a religious anthem in these parts. A strategic trio closes the set with what Jimi Hendrix might call an electric sky church theme as the gospel-tinged rock of “Waiting for a Miracle” leads into the soulful “Sisters and Brothers” before concluding with the funky spiritual groove of “Magnificent Sanctuary Band”. Word of a stellar performance gets around quick, leading to a Saturday night sellout after Friday’s less than full house.

Sunday at Terrapin’s “Backyard” finds fingers in the air outside as fans seek a miracle ticket for the sold out Phil Lesh & Friends performance that features one of the venue’s best lineups of the year with Seals on organ, John Molo on drums, Jason Crosby on piano, and Barry Sless and Stu Allen on guitars. The two-hour show provides a rare opportunity to witness Seals and Lesh onstage together, mixing a few JGB classics into the GD repertoire. A majestic rendition of “The Wheel” finds the band reaching stellar heights where the players weave collective melodies into a sonic tapestry in which the whole becomes greater than the parts. The show hits a big peak at the end as a hot version of “Scarlet Begonias” dances through a tease toward “Uncle John’s Band” before giving way to a bustout of JGB’s bouncy “Ruben and Cherise”, before giving way to the more traditional pairing of “Fire on the Mountain”.

Yet another bonus occurs back in the bar as Lesh’s son Grahame leads his band Midnight North through a vibrant evening set. The band’s sound leans Americana but also features some deep classic rock influences, such as a splendid cover of “Wooden Ships” with vocalist Elliot Peck channeling the urgency of Grace Slick. The whole weekend is testimony to the bright flame that still burns in San Rafael for Saint Jerome, as well as the devoted disciples who tend it with their dedication to listening for the secret and searching for the sound…