The Greyboy Allstars Rise to Terrapin

Watching these five musical masters in action is always a treat, as the Greyboy Allstars consistently conjure that improv x-factor where the sum becomes greater than the parts.
Dead Wings

SAN RAFAEL — San Francisco was ground zero for America’s rock ‘n’ roll revolution in the late ‘60s. But by the time the decade ended, the scene’s trailblazers from the Grateful Dead were already retreating across the Golden Gate Bridge from an oversaturated Haight-Ashbury to the rolling green hills and serene mountain air of Marin County. The San Francisco music scene soldiered on though and by the late ‘90s, another golden era was taking place as a new wave of jamrock and improv-oriented artists were once again making the fabled Fillmore Auditorium the place to be for adventurous live music.

The Greyboy Allstars were one of these bands. The San Diego-based band played San Francisco often, then recorded their quintessential Live album in SF and released it in March of ‘99 right before acid jazz ringleader and ace saxman Karl Denson led his quintet of funky virtuosos into the Fillmore for a marathon dance party that filled the 1,200 capacity venue and had people getting down like there was no tomorrow. Denson became a regular at the Fillmore, sometimes with his other band Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, always bringing an infectious energy that demanded a weekend slot because there was such high demand with the youthful denizens long drawn to San Francisco by the resonation of that ‘60s counterculture music revolution.

1999 was also the same year that Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh bounced back from a life-threatening liver transplant and started playing with a who’s who of the modern jamrock scene to help keep the fire burning and share the torch with the second wave that he and the Dead helped inspire. But the landscape has shifted in recent years and so has the heart of the Bay Area music scene.

The Fillmore is still one of the greatest venues in the known universe, but it doesn’t host as many shows as it used to, especially in the improv-jam genre. One of the primary reasons is the ever skyrocketing cost of housing in San Francisco that has accompanied the new tech boom and forced many of the creative types that used to be drawn to “The City” to look elsewhere. There just aren’t as many die-hard live music fans around any more with many now moving to Denver or Austin instead, cities with great music scenes that have housing at half the cost of California. This leaves the Bay Area in an existential struggle to maintain the vibrant artistic vibe that made San Francisco such a cultural mecca in the latter part of the 20th century.

A new venue popped up in 2012 to help save the scene though and how fitting that the Dead’s Lesh is the local savior behind it. Lesh bought a seafood restaurant with a banquet room in San Rafael’s marina district and turned it into Terrapin Crossroads (TxR), now one of the most unique and special places to see live music in America. “The house that Phil Lesh built”, as Denson revered it in a recent tweet, has become a musical mecca with a formula that few venues can even aspire to. The old banquet room was turned into the Grate Room, an intimate 300-capacity room with Fillmore-style chandeliers where Lesh plays on a regular basis with varying lineups and price ranges. He also invites an ever-enticing lineup of jamrock and improv-oriented artists to play there as well.

But what really puts Terrapin Crossroads over the top into musical utopia is how the music truly never stops on nights when the Grate Room is booked. The majority of Grate Room shows will be two sets and when setbreak comes, patrons can just waltz into the restaurant where every night features a free bar show with a rotating cast of the best musicians the Bay Area has to offer. These are usually Grateful Dead-oriented affairs, although some other classic rock, indie rock and even classic top 40 flavors will pop up. In this case it’s a new combo featuring some of the usual suspects, the Dead Wings.

This has made TxR quite a dinner draw, with most nights featuring the best bar band in America regardless of who’s in the lineup. The Greyboy Allstars landed at Terrapin for a two-night run on a Wednesday and Thursday, following a rousing Phil Lesh & Friends show on Tuesday that featured Denson on sax. It’s been quite a ride for Denson over the past couple years. First he gets called up to the premier league to become a touring member of the Rolling Stones, now he’s jamming with Phil Lesh, a combo that puts Denson in truly rare air. But it’s appropo because he’s flat out one of the best sax players in the world and he’s earned that cred by delivering countless shows and good times over the past 20+ years.

The Greyboy Allstars may not be able to fill the Fillmore anymore due to San Francisco’s cultural crisis, but the band is still going strong and there’s an adoring audience ready and waiting in the friendly confines of Terrapin. The band finds an early groove on Hugh Masakela’s “Son of Ice Bag”, with Denson blowing hot sax over a jazzy groove from bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Aaron Redner. Guitarist Elgin Park and organ wiz Robert Walter help conjure a mystical vibe on another sultry tune where the charismatic Denson recites lyrics from Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

Watching these five musical masters in action is always a treat, as they consistently conjure that improv x-factor where the sum becomes greater than the parts. An x-factor explosion occurs on the classic “Jack Rabbit”, a song that soars from takeoff as Stillwell starts laying down the dynamic bassline with a precision attack that requires him to play with a pick instead of his fingers. It’s a monster groove that always gets people jumping around, hence the title. Park comps a sizzling rhythm to set the table for a hot solo from Denson, then Walter steps in to take everyone for a magic carpet ride on his Hammond organ. Redner meanwhile is a force to be reckoned with, laying down a furious beat that gels with the rest of the band to generate that Greyboy magic.

The Dead Wings meanwhile are delivering a stellar performance of their own in the bar. Patrons who stop in during the Grate Room setbreak are treated to a beautiful rendition of “Box of Rain”, with singer Kyle Field putting out some deep mojo on the Phil Lesh signature classic. Then the band really ignites on “St. Stephen”, with guitarists Scott Law and Tim Bluhm tearing it up over a fierce groove from bassist Brian Rashap and drummer Alex Koford. Rashap, Koford and Law are all regulars at TxR, with Oregon’s Law seemingly occupying Jerry Garcia second chair after local fixture Stu Allen. The Mother Hips’ Bluhm is lately becoming a regular too and he and Law make a dynamic duo here, riffing out with strong chemistry on a hot jam. The quintet keeps the fire burning with “Brown-Eyed Women”, laying down an up-tempo version that’s more like how Lesh started playing it with Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring than the Dead’s original version. This is part of the continuing evolving beauty of GD music at TxR, with a revolving cast of disciples ever searching for a fresh sound on the classic repertoire.

The Dead Wings would make for a fine night out all on their own, but it’s soon time to head back to the Grate Room for set two with the Greyboy Allstars. Denson and company seem to get caught up in the spirit of the venue with a second set featuring fewer of their traditional funk workouts and more emphasis on some extended jazzy space jams. This is not to say the band loses their groove, for the Greyboy Allstars are a groove machine. But the band is clearly stretching out with a “when in Rome” mindset, knowing such adventurous playing will be well appreciated here. One tune goes into a mesmerizing jam recalling the Dead’s early ‘70s workouts on “Dark Star”, much to the delight of all, with Denson adding some exquisite sax work. Another conjures a groovy improv vibe from an “Eyes of the World” type jam. A couple other tunes feature Denson on jazz flute, with the band bringing a range of sonic vibes from Miles Davis to boogaloo and Ron Burgundy.

By the time the show ends, it’s been over three hours of nonstop music if you count the setbreak excursion back to the bar with Dead Wings. The Bay Area music scene may not be drawing quite the quantity of live music-goers as it did around the turn of the millennium, but the quality and regularity of the music seems to be assured thanks to Terrapin Crossroads.