The music never stops in San Rafael
The Grateful Dead left their imprint, and shops and restaurants rock on
Music is serious business in Marin. And in San Rafael, the heart of the scene is positively Fourth Street. This is Grateful Dead country, and for those who want to follow in their footsteps, there’s much to absorb.
Wanting to learn more about the band’s connection to San Rafael, I stopped at Friends Books (friends of the San Rafael Public Library and now mine), where a kind woman pulled up a chair for me in the music section. I pored over histories of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger, a slender, psychedelic book by Jerry Garcia and Clive Davis’ memoir. Davis wrote about his first meeting with the Grateful Dead, introducing them to producer Keith Olsen and the making of the 1977 album “Terrapin Station.” I walked out the door with Patti Smith’s “Complete” catalog lyrics and a burning desire to visit Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads, a music and restaurant venue in the Canal District owned by the renowned bass guitarist.
“The Grateful Dead was essentially a San Rafael band,” according to Terrapin’s website, which gives important nearby addresses like 20 Front St., once the Dead’s recording studio Club Front. Under the Litchfield’s sign on the northeast side of Highway 101 was the music hall Euphoria Ballroom, also known as Pepperland.
It’s gratifying to explore Marin’s county seat and rest assured the spirit of the ’60s and ’70s is going strong.
Sol Food’s beat is Latin, and the menu is Puerto Rican. Cafe Rico is a sweet mix of espresso and condensed milk; eggs range from arroz con huevos to scrambled revoltillo. The restaurant has a facade painted lime green, welcoming communal tables and counter seats, an adjacent bodega and rotisserie, and a patio a few doors down (as you walk toward Fourth Street). Red Devil Records is the destination for contemporary and vintage vinyl and some rare LPs. Owner Barry Lazarus explains why certain albums are valuable (record and cover condition is a factor) and shows off sought-after ones by the Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan. Bananas at Large is a fullservice emporium for music lessons, ukulele meet-ups, carrying cases for drumsticks, Gibsons and Fenders. At Alan Rosen’s big corner store, you could get lucky and run into a famous musician (word is that Lesh, Bob Weir and Carlos Santana have all been seen here). Deadheads should check out the Victorian house at 1016 Lincoln Ave. (at Fifth Street), the band’s office in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. For accessories suited to Summer of Love festivities, head over to Namaste, where Nepalese owner Deepiz Shrestha will help you choose among tie-dye sarongs, hand-embroidered tunics, glittery scarves and starchy white Indian shirts.
Break for lunch at the State Room, where the menu includes Prather Ranch beef burgers, poutine, BLTs, kale and veggie combos, and the brewery’s $10 flights (four 5-ounce glasses). Happy hour (3 to 5 p.m. TuesdayFriday) means dollar oysters, $6 salads, $7 baos and $8 charcuterie boards. The outside area is a friendly hangout for both pups and people.
If the sun’s out, you might find Lesh performing weekends in the Backyard at Terrapin Crossroads. Some appearances are spontaneous, others on the calendar. You can’t put together a more relaxed afternoon than grooving to cool bands on the banks of the canal as small boats and paddleboarders drift by. Lesh, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, is approachable and in fine form after two hours of the Saturday concert he calls “Songs to Phil the Air.” Sunday afternoon is story time when Lesh, himself a grandfather, reads and sings to children. Fancy and casual food, along with plenty of draft beers, is available in the restaurant. Backyard audiences dine on salads and pizza at tables or on the grass while toddlers climb the jungle gym and run next to bocce ball courts. The concerts are free, and the convivial crowd is whipped into a (polite) frenzy when they hear Lesh and others belt out “Uncle John’s Band.” Sons Grahame Lesh and Brian Lesh play there when they’re not on the road. Lesh wanted to create a multigenerational space for family and friends to perform, emulating the late Levon Helm’s jam sessions in Helm’s Woodstock, N.Y., barn. Check the website for groups appearing in the bar, beach park or more serious Grate Room (Marin band San Geronimo performs Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon” May 26).
All ages enjoy the Downtown Farmers Market 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays. Vendors sell strawberries, cherries, oranges, greens, granola and flowers. Live music (reggae, folk, rock) is performed on three Fourth Street stages (between Lootens Place and B Street), with the biggest, loudest group at City Plaza. For dinner, there is regional Mexican food and homemade tortillas from La Memelas de Luna and steak sandwiches from Tri-Tip Trolley. For a visual piece of rock ’n’ roll history, the Smith Rafael Film Center screens new, classic and artistic movies. Coming up: the 2017 documentary “Long Strange Trip” (four hours of Grateful Dead footage and interviews) on Thursday, May 25; “Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare” on June 1; a tribute to Leonard Cohen June 10; and a 50th-anniversary restoration of “Monterey Pop” on June 18. Filmmakers and actors often appear at events at the elegant, muralrich Art Deco theater, home of the California Film Institute and a venue for the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Above: Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead performs at the casual Canal District venue he owns, Terrapin Crossroads, while the audience lounges in the sun.
Left: Regular customer Jessica Ascencio, a local, looks for classic rock records at Red Devil Records in San Rafael.
Miles Rudsenske, 8, of San Rafael samples Rodrigues Farms strawberries at the Sunday Marin Farmers Market.