Phil Lesh's Terrapin Crossroads launches The Backyard
It's just another Friday night at Phil Lesh's Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael: Lesh and his band are in full thrall in the ticketed Grate Room; Santa Rosa guitarist Steve Pile is playing in the bar; and, on the waterfront deck, patrons relax by the San Rafael Canal with glasses of chardonnay, fish tacos and oven-roasted Brussels sprouts.
Terrapin was inspired by Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles in upstate New York, where musicians and their friends regularly gathered for intimate shows. Since opening in spring 2012, it also has become a gathering place for people throughout the North Bay and beyond.
This week it's launching its next stage: The Backyard, an outdoor performance space and kids' play area that was developed in partnership with the City of San Rafael at Beach Park alongside Terrapin's back deck.
Once a dusty lot that was home to transients, the park has been transformed into an inviting space with a stage shaded by a lattice overhang, three bocce ball courts, picnic tables and a toy ship that kids can climb and slide down.
“We intend to do a lot of public stuff,” said Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead, in a phone interview last week. “I do really like playing outside. I want to play lots of music out there in the park whenever I can.”
The Backyard is covered by artificial grass (no water needed), colorful chairs and a bunch of foot-high tree stumps where kids can sit and listen as Lesh and his musician friends tell stories or recite “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
Terrapin is celebrating the new Backyard with sold out performances Sunday April 17 featuring Soulive, Cosmic Twang and headliner Phil Lesh and Friends.
The following Sunday, April 24, Lesh will be in the Backyard at 4 p.m. with a free show for families. He'll tell stories and play kids' songs on the Back Porch stage with the Camp Terrapin Family Band.
An official dedication with San Rafael officials will follow on April 30.
Terrapin Crossroads opened four years ago in a waterfront building formerly occupied by The Seafood Peddler. The interior has been transformed with Grateful Dead photos and memories on the walls, but the restaurant's portholes remain.
“Being family-friendly has been our goal from the beginning,” Lesh said. “We didn't want to have a nightclub. We wanted to have a place where people can come during the day or in the evening just to be together or hang out.
“The Grateful Dead has always been about community. We started out playing for free in Golden Gate Park for the community, and that really defined our purpose in the world.”
The Backyard project is the natural next stage, an appealing outdoor venue for musical performances, and a casual place for Terrapin customers to relax between shows.
“This is city land and their property,” said Terrapin's executive director Tara Patton, “but they worked with us on a lease where we could improve the park and make it a safe and wonderful environment.” Terrapin has a renewable seven-year lease to use the park, she said.
Lesh credits San Rafael city officials with being receptive to Terrapin's vision for the park. “We truly couldn't have done it without them,” he said.
Many come to Terrapin for the music, pizzas from the wood-fired oven and craft brews on tap, but it is much more than simply a place to dine and listen to jam bands.
“It's a community space that reflects the vibe of love and kindness,” said Tara Tate of Sebastopol. “The musicians speak our language. I always walk away feeling really connected and fulfilled.”
Space for kids
Tate, 40, said she has been going to Terrapin since shortly after it opened. “My best friend got married there last year, which was super special,” she said. “They showed up on a boat.”
Another thing Tate appreciates: “We can go to dinner or have brunch on the deck, and there's a contained space for our kids to run around.”
And she's grateful for Terrapin's frequent free shows. The stage in the restaurant has free music daily, often one band late afternoon and another in the evening. On weekends, bands start playing during brunch.
Lesh occasionally plays free shows in the Grate Room with local musicians such as Stu Allen, whose guitar style and vocals hauntingly evoke the sound of the late Jerry Garcia.
“The free shows are really special because it makes (going out) affordable and attainable for a lot of people,” Tate said.
The Phil Lesh shows typically sell out in hours, sometimes minutes, evidence that Terrapin could charge more, but Tate said the venue's goal isn't to make as much money as possible. Lesh's ticketed shows typically range from $20 to $79. Fans with extras sell them for face value, one of the unwritten principles of the Grateful Dead community: Thou shalt not gouge.