“Wanderer shine on high/Brightest star in the midnight sky/Swing down low, the night so black/Ace of diamonds in the zodiac” – “Jupiter” (lyrics by Robert Hunter)
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.”
Grahame acknowledges the influence of Grateful Dead albums like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty on his “Back to California,” another early track which has the warm country flavor of the Allman Brothers’ “Sweet Melissa.” “Back to California” features backing vocals from the entire choir of the band and extended family of musicians who were at the studio that day, including Phil Lesh, Amy Helm, and touring keyboard player TJ Kanczuzewski. The song first appeared in a very different form on Under the Lights.
“The Under the Lights album was written right after the first time we’d been out in the world as a band on tour,” says Grahame. “It felt like we could claim some of that classic rock and roll imagery of troubadours on the road eating up the miles. Even though it’s a younger me who wrote those lyrics, they seem to fit the themes of this record too. We changed the key and updated the feel, and it feels like it finally fits musically with where the band is now. It has become one of my favorite songs to play live, and I’m thrilled that this version is on the record.”
Nathan’s “Walk the Runway” offers an East Coast perspective. It’s a story about falling in love with the bartender at an unnamed New York haunt, revealed by the band to be Fanelli’s “at the corner of Prince.” “Old Country,” written by Brian Lesh and featuring his harmony vocals and mandolin playing, is a folk song in which he asks, “Won’t you see me sitting there/Grinning at the moon?” under Nathan & Connor’s driving country groove.
Other musical flavors include the funky “Round & Round,” with Jason Crosby tickling the ivories and Connor’s driving funk bassline pushing the action (and which Elliott co-wrote with Grahame while jamming on her ’70s Wurlitzer), and the plaintive “In the Sunrise,” in which Elliott shows off her vocals — equal parts Janis Joplin’s primal scream, Bonnie Raitt’s soulful ache and Brandi Carlile’s naked vulnerability.
The epic centerpiece of the album, and the piece de resistance for Deadheads, is undoubtedly “Jupiter” — featuring Phil on bass and Brian on harmony vocals — which harks back to Phil Lesh & Friends’ “Planet Jams” of some 20 years ago, the Quintet with guitarists Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring, keyboardist Rob Barraco and drummer John Molo.
“I grew up watching that lineup in my early teens through high school, when that band was really cooking,” said Grahame. “They often wrote with Bob [Hunter] at the time for the Phil & Friends album There & Back Again and other projects, and the lyrics to ‘Jupiter’ come from that time. My dad never put the lyrics to the music he wrote, and at some point passed them along to me, and a few years ago I wrote music to the lyrics. I didn’t change any of the words.”
“Hunter very much meant for the words to speak for themselves,” says Grahame. “I always think of the clip from the Long Strange Trip movie where they asked him to explain the lyrics to ‘Dark Star,’ and he responded by reciting the lyrics and then saying, ‘what is unclear about that? I mean, it says what it means.'”
With its top-flight pedigree, Midnight North is intent on carrying the torch for this distinctly American music from one generation to the next. “Songlines” sums up the idea of a group of individuals putting their unique experiences into the common thread of music. Elliott and Amy join their voices together, singing, “Pass the lyric down to a troubled heart/A broken choir sings to light up the dark.”
“It’s a generational thing,” acknowledges Grahame. “It’s about what’s passed down to us and what we pass on. The verses are about different people in the dark needing the light, and that’s where they get it, from families and friends.”
Elliott’s “A Great Farewell” brings the album to a suitable close. It’s about starting over, trying new things, but never forgetting what got us here in the first place. “I guess we’ll repeat the same mistakes/Knowing nothing’s going to change,” she sings, adding, “There’s a light out there/If we’re open to the spark.”
Diamonds in the Zodiac shows not even the sky is the limit for Midnight North.
“The songs and the community are the pillars holding this up,” says Lesh, who has toured with his father as a member of Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Family Band and Phil Lesh & Friends. “We’re so thankful to be part of this scene. This music is timeless.”