Tickets: $20 Advance
Midnight North takes its cue from the fertile Bay Area music scene. Formed in early 2012 by singer/songwriters Grahame Lesh and Elliott Peck, whose harmonies came as naturally as the initial songs, along with bassist Connor O’Sullivan. The band’s current-day lineup was completed when drummer/banjo player Nathan Graham came aboard after a chance meeting at a benefit concert in Philadelphia in 2016 following the release of its third, and breakthrough, album, Under the Lights, in 2017. In the early days, the group was able to grow as a unit thanks to an association with Lesh’s family venue, Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, California.
Diamonds in the Zodiac – on the Americana Vibes label – is Midnight North’s fifth studio album (along with three live discs), representing a continuation of the musical direction on 2021’s There’s Always a Story. The title comes from the unearthed Robert Hunter lyrics for “Jupiter,” one of two extended tracks on an album — the other, Grahame’s opening “Questions.” Other than those two, Diamonds is increasingly song-oriented and steeped in bluegrass, country, soul, blues, funk, jazz and gospel – a true Americana melting pot.
It also turned into a real, second-generation family affair, as it was produced by the band’s dear friend Amy Helm, daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm and singer/songwriter Libby Titus, and features Grahame’s dad Phil and brother Brian. “Things have come full circle in that it was meeting Amy and Levon Helm at a Ramble in the Barn that gave my parents the inspiration to open Terrapin Crossroads, and having Terrapin was so instrumental in the band’s development. And now Amy produced this album and shepherded these songs to their ultimate form,” said Grahame.
Diamonds was mixed by D. James Goodwin, who has worked with such luminaries as Bob Weir, the Hold Steady, The National, Goose, and Bonny Light Horseman among many others. Micah Nelson, aka Particle Kid, and Willie’s son, did the honors on the album cover artwork, using acrylic paint mixed with floetrol poured on wood.
Recorded at Dave Schools’ (Widespread Panic) Spacecamp in Occidental, California, Diamond in the Zodiac’s 10 tracks represent a truly collaborative effort, featuring band members playing different instruments and many friends & collaborators stopping by the studio to contribute to the music and the vibe. Phil & Brian Lesh, Jason Crosby, and TJ Kanczuzewski all contributed significant moments, and all of the focus was on pulling the best version of the song out of the ensemble.
“What’s unique about this band is we have two lead writers in Grahame and I, with very different approaches,” says Elliott. “I’ve always been more in the singer/songwriter mold, while Grahame comes from the jam band ethos of extending things. I feel Grahame has really evolved as a songwriter on this record, where a song like ‘Questions’ is more lyrically driven.”
Grahame acknowledges taking his cues on the track from listening to the audiobook of Jeff Tweedy’s “How to Write One Song” in writing “Questions.” “Elliott recommended it to me during the pandemic, and that’s the song that came out of it. His idea in the book was just to start and finish one song and not worry about a whole repertoire.”
Elliott based the piano-driven “The Colors Here,” the first single – which features Phil Lesh on bass, Jason Crosby on violin, and producer Amy Helm on harmony vocals – on memories of tornadoes in her Midwest Chicago childhood along with the Judy Garland movie of Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” where the screen goes from black-and-white to technicolor when Dorothy finds she’s not in Kansas anymore.
“It’s all about how suffering through a major tragedy can open the door to your salvation,” explains Elliott. “You can find beauty on the other side. There’s always hope.”