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Published: 2017/03/31
by Matt Inman

Dan Lebowitz on Phil Lesh and the Bay Area Musical Family

Dan Lebowitz, perhaps better known as simply Lebo, has been a steady face on the California music scene for years, most notably with his work in ALO, but there’s a newer, more specific scene that Lebowitz has begun to readily embrace recently. The Bay Area jam culture pre-dates the guitarist and vocalist by years, but thanks to a younger batch of musicians playing and collaborating at venues like Terrapin Crossroads and Sweetwater Music Hall, the scene has never been more vibrant, and Lebowitz revels in the inclusive and collaborative aspect that is being fostered in the area.

Can you tell me about your side band Magic Gravy with Garrett Sayers and Dave Watts from The Motet, and how that came to be?

It’s super fun. It’s like an all improv trio, we just kind of have a couple heads. We just got a little bit that we used to get into it and then we just run along for a half hour or forty-five minutes, never know what it’s going to be, and then find our way back. So a show is two maybe three tunes. That’s usually how it works out. It’s fun. Those guys are such a dynamic rhythm section. I always feel, as a guitar player, that it’s like getting into a fine automobile? It’s like, hit the gas and fshooo . They’re just so good and powerful. Garrett’s got a lot of cool melodic ideas, and Dan’s got the rhythmic ideas, so it’s cool. A lot of dialog, that’s the idea of it. Whenever we can get together, it’s special.

It’s actually kind of a neat [origin] story, though. The band started because there was this guy that we know who was turning 30—this was like ten years ago. He was this crazy dude, and he decided to have his birthday party in Mexico at this place—I forget what it’s even called, but it’s basically an oasis in the middle of the desert where these hot springs come up. So it was this whole little canyon area, a kind of mountain, all green and lush. No roads—you have to cross creeks to get to it. It’s totally crazy, but he somehow got all of us to do it. And originally, he was trying to get ALO, and ALO couldn’t do it, then he was trying to get Motet and Motet couldn’t do it. And I was like, “Well, I’m into it. Sounds fun to me.” And then those guys were there, so it was like, “Well, that’s a band.” It was so funny—they trucked a generator in, you know, crossed creeks with it and stuff. And then we set up and we just played out there in the hills, and we had so much fun. So ever since then, we’ve just kind of done it. Some years there’s more and some years less, but it happens every year at least a few times. Sometimes we’ll do a little run where we’ll get ten shows in or so a year. Usually it’s a few shows a year.

You debuted a song on Jam Cruise about the ethos of Terrapin Crossroads. Can you talk about the scene and culture around that venue?

It’s been awesome. Basically, with Terrapin, and then Sweetwater too, both those venues have been really good about fostering the scene. Especially with Terrapin—they’ve got such a cool thing. Every day there’s three bands in there, in the bar. Three bands a day, and on the weekends it’s about four. And it’s awesome. They bring the musicians in, and it’s work for musicians, but more than that, it’s the community it’s built around. The way they do it is that they don’t actually do very many bands in there. The Grate Room has the bands. So, we’ll do Lebo and Friends in there or, you know, I’ve played with Phil a bunch in there. But the bar is cool, because it’s more just a group of musicians that they pull from. Because I travel a lot, I basically let them know when I’m going to be around town, when I’m going to be available. Then, it’s so cool because they just pair you up with. It’s all a like-minded scene, so that’s why it’s such a community. It’s not like bands coming in and [saying,] “You have to play our songs.” You just come in, and everyone brings some tunes in—original tunes or cover tunes, whatever you want. We played a Jackson Browne song the other night. You know what I’m saying—whatever you want. You just bring in your charts, get on stage, and it’s real loose. You just kind of stop in between songs and tell everyone, “Okay I’m doing this.”

Do different musicians take control of different songs?

It moves around, yeah. And the way they organize it, someone is leading a night usually. So whoever’s responsible for leading the night might get a little thread going: “Send me some tunes you want to do.” And a lot of it just happens in the moment. It’s real loose. I’m definitely on gigs a bunch where I know the guys and we’ve all played together a bunch, so we literally just call tunes as we’re going—“Oh, you want to play this one?” “I think I know that one!” “Yeah, where’s the bridge go to?” “Oh, it goes to beat five.” “Cool, just give me a nod when it’s coming up.” “Here are some lyrics, you want to sing some backups here?” A lot of us have iPads, so we just air-drop charts around. It’s funny.

Wow, twenty-first century.

Yeah, it’s super weird. But it’s amazing, because everyone’s song book is growing so much from the scene, because we’re all just sharing tunes with each other all the time. And it’s funny, because you like a tune, so then the next time you lead the night you might pull it out and say, “I want to sing that one tonight.” And, I should say, a big part of it, too, is just Phil’s vibe with it, because he’s so into that vibe himself. He just did a whole run of nights in the bar himself. I did a couple with him. It was called the Dead of Winter. He just did free shows in the bar. That’s the other thing that’s cool about the bar—it’s free. The musicians gets paid, but they don’t charge anyone at the door. That’s another thing that makes this casual. People can go, they don’t have to be like, “I don’t want to go pay twenty-five bucks to go.” Come out, get a beer, you’re going to see some good music. Phil pops in all the time, a lot of times unannounced. He shows up, jumps on the bass. It’s cool. For me, it feels the most alive I’ve seen the Bay Area scene since I’ve been here.

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