Midnight North is set to release Under the Lights on June 16, and their third studio album finds the band continuing to develop their rootsy Americana rock sound with the musical soul and infectious harmonies they’ve become known for. The San Francisco Bay Area band has been spreading its wings over the past couple years, venturing from the comfortable nest of their traditional Sunday night gigs at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael for some genuine touring that has helped develop both their musical prowess and songwriting. The results show on the new album, indicating a band that is slowly but surely growing into its prime.
Formed around the talents of female singer/guitarist/keyboardist Elliott Peck and singer/guitarist Grahame Lesh (son of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh), Midnight North presents a sonic dichotomy between the country-flavored tunes that Peck seems to favor and the more rock-oriented sound that Lesh leans toward. But these worlds aren’t so far apart, as evidenced by how the band’s stellar vocal harmonies work so well in both contexts. Multi-talented keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Alex Jordan is a factor here as well, another regular in the Terrapin Crossroads scene who’s ready and able to fill the shoes of Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, or Brent Mydland on any given night. Bassist Connor O’Sullivan rounds out the core lineup (another multi-instrumentalist who contributes some mandolin on occasion), while the band is currently still seeking a permanent drummer.
The blend between their rock side and their country/folk side is actually what makes Midnight North a relatively unique band, with a sound that’s sort of like a cross between the classic rock of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s with the Johnny Cash & June Carter show from the same era. Peck even namedrops Johnny & June specifically in the album’s lead single, “The Highway Song”. It’s an uptempo, country-tinged gem where Peck shines singing about meeting up on the road to work on some music.
The group’s sonic polarity is clearly illustrated when comparing “The Highway Song” with the second single, the title track that also kicks off the album with an electrifying charge. Those who favor Midnight North’s more rocking side will dig the high-energy rocker that’s had some of the band’s local fans wondering whether it was an original tune or an obscure classic rock gem that Lesh had unearthed (as bands at Terrapin often do). “Under the Lights” sounds like it could have come from the Almost Famous soundtrack of ‘70s classic rock, yet it has a fresh 21st-century vibrancy. The song shows Lesh growing into his own as a songwriter devoted to the rock ‘n’ roll life.
That devotion to the rock lifestyle and the sacrifices it entails with life on the road and in the spotlight is a running theme on the album. “Playing a Poor Hand Well” finds the group building on the foundation of previous endearing fan favorites like “Stayin’ Single Drinkin’ Doubles” with Peck delivering a bluesy country rock vocal about making the best of things. There’s also some timely horn arrangements here that recall the Band (whom Midnight North have covered frequently). The horns are employed to add some upbeat accents to the celebratory “Everyday” as well, with Lesh singing about miracles on the road. “Back to California” fits in this theme too, a mid-tempo Lesh number where he blends the longing of being away from home with the catharsis of returning to the Golden State.
Midnight North cracks the code on “Roamin”, a dynamic, syncopated rocker with a bluesy undercurrent where the three vocalists harmonize together on the choruses after divvying up the verses. The band’s multi-dimensional harmonies are on full display here, conjuring a rich sound that takes full advantage of their talents. “Echoes” is a bluesy rocker in a similar vein, with Lesh’s soulful verses again boosted by Peck’s harmonies on the chorus about following one’s dreams and facing your fears only when ready. Tunes like these bring to mind comparisons with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, another blues rock oriented group with deep connections in the jam rock scene. Midnight North doesn’t have a virtuoso instrumentalist like Derek Trucks, but Peck’s range is in Susan Tedeschi’s ballpark, so it’s fitting that they’ve slipped a dynamite cover of TTB’s “Midnight in Harlem” into their live repertoire (could a bluegrassy re-arrangement of Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight” be next?)
Peck is hard to pigeonhole as she takes a bluesier turn herself on “Headline from Kentucky”, then switches gears for an upbeat country sound of personal empowerment on “One Night Stand”. There’s also a more solemn country vibe on “Green County”, where she relates a breakup that occurs by phone because she’s not coming home. Jordan contributes a melodic acoustic-oriented number with “Little Black Dog” that finds the band having fun with the three-part harmonies.
Could Midnight North be more of a musical force if they focused on their rock side? Quite possibly. But they’ve made the artistic decision to deal from a more diverse deck, and it’s the blend with the country/folk side that makes them stand out from the pack as a band with deep roots in American popular music.