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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.

Lesh's son, Grahame Lesh, 29, an up-and-coming guitarist and singer, often plays alongside his dad. Grahame is also in the band Midnight North, a Terrapin mainstay.

San Rafael guitarist Danny Click, another regular in the Terrapin family of musicians, plays there on April 30 with his band the Hell Yeahs. He said Lesh sets the tone for the club.

“Phil knows what makes the audience happy and what makes musicians happy,” Click said. “And it doesn't hurt to have the legacy of the Grateful Dead there.”

Even when he's not onstage, Lesh is often at Terrapin, getting a bite or having a drink in the bar - there's a table reserved for him. He frequently sits in with whoever is playing, which is always crowd-pleasing. His presence at Terrapin adds to the luster of the place.

“There might be a Phil sighting,” Click said. “He's always hanging out, and he's very approachable. Every time I've seen anyone approach Phil, he's kind and takes time to talk to them.”

Bespectacled and thin at 76, Lesh underwent a liver transplant in 1998 and concludes his shows by urging his fans to become organ donors, which he says is as simple as letting your loved ones know you wish to donate your organs.

He survived prostate cancer a decade ago and announced last fall he had overcome bladder cancer. “Every day is a gift,” he said, and whether he's on stage or in the restaurant, it's clear he means it.

Fans come up to Lesh and call him “Phil,” like he's an uncle or a longtime friend, and in a sense he is.

“No Deadhead is a total stranger,” Lesh said. “I love meeting Deadheads and talking to them because everybody has a story. And it's fascinating for me to hear their stories.

“It gives me a sense of faith that what we are trying to provide for them is working. Mostly they want to say thank you. It's quite touching really.”

Local fans appreciate that Lesh has brought that sensibility to the North Bay.

“This is the epitome of what Dead culture could become,” said Max Schrank of Mill Valley during a set break at a recent show. “It's historic. This is all we'd hoped for, one of the members of the Dead playing in our backyard.”

With so many regulars at Terrapin, Lesh said, “every day is a family reunion.”

Lesh and his bandmates have been performing tributes to the years the Grateful Dead were active, 1965 to 1995, when lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died. They're picking one show from each year and reenacting it in Terrapin's Grate Room.

Personal story

On stage Lesh is open and revealing, a stark contrast to the Grateful Dead, who rarely said more than a few words to their devoted followers.

Last January, Lesh introduced the 1982 concert tribute show by saying, “When 1982 started, it was a pretty dark time for me personally. I had been drinking pretty heavily, and … I didn't see any reason to stop, so I was floating down that river.”

His life brightened later that year when he met Jill, the woman who would become his wife.

“Since then we've been joined at the hip, Velcro-ed together for 34 years,” Lesh said. “That's why for me 1982 is the best year of my life. The best.”

Lesh grew up in Berkeley where his musical interests ranged from classical to free-form jazz. During the many chapters in his life, he moved from 1960s psychedelic music to last year's stadium shows in Santa Clara and Chicago that marked the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary.

More than half a century after his resounding and inventive bass lines gave oomph to the nascent Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh keeps on playing, and the fans keep on dancing.

“Every note of music I play is a gift,” he said. “Every encounter with a member of the community is a gift, and, believe me, I treasure that beyond anything.”

Terrapin Crossroads is at 100 Yacht Club Drive, San Rafael. For a calendar of upcoming events, see terrapincrossroads.net.

Contact Michael Shapiro via his site, michaelshapiro.net.

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