Behind the Scene: Ross James on Finding the Dead, Teaming with Phil Lesh and Memories from Fare Thee Well
by Bradley Tucker on December 12, 2016
Ross James has only played Grateful Dead music for around seven years, which, in some ways, makes sense because he is just 29 years old. But what’s surprising is that he’s currently the tour manager for Phil Lesh & Friends as well as the executive director of Terrapin Crossroads, the restaurant and music venue owned by Phil and Jill Lesh. (The space was conceived as a West Coast version of Levon Helm’s Barn, hosting similar style Rambles.) James, who moved to California from his native Michigan in 2010 and sought out any gigs available while his sister attended college at Berkeley, now plays an integral role in multiple settings celebrating the music of the Dead.
Looking back, he reflects, “I had no idea that the songs were that good before Terrapin started. I thought it was a big party scene, to tell you the truth. It’s been truly eye-opening hearing how many great songs are in their catalog.”
In recent years, he’s become fully intertwined in the Grateful Dead’s world, as evidenced by his immediate response when asked about the process of putting a Phil & Friends show together: “It’s never the same twice— or once, really.”
What was the live music scene like where you grew up?
I grew up just outside of Detroit and there was always a bunch of great shows to go see. From the time I was a sophomore in high school until I left for California, I was going to as many shows as I could— stuff like Lou Reed at Saint Andrew’s Hall and The White Stripes right before they sort of blew up. Green Day was huge for me when I was a kid. When I was real young, that was the first band I remember digging and then, shortly after that, it was The Velvet Underground.
There was a club called Magic Stick where I used to see a lot of shows, and that’s also where I first started learning how to do live sound. I remember just talking to the guys who would be mixing shows and trying to pick their brains and, eventually, I started working with them.
What was your first job in the music business and what led you to that job?
In 2004, I was working at a deli in East Lansing, Mich., and this guy came in with a shirt that had a production company logo on it. I asked him what they did and we started talking. He was looking for a video engineer— basically somebody to set up the video screen at shows and the video walls behind the band. That was my first job in the production side of life. From there, I started getting into live audio.
Can you talk about your introduction to the Grateful Dead’s music and how that eventually led you to Phil Lesh?
I was living in Sacramento, doing sound and playing as much as I could, and I was on Craigslist looking for gigs and bands to play with. There was an ad that read: “Looking for a guitar and pedal steel player who likes Dave Rawlings and Larry Campbell.” That’s all the ad said. Those are two of my favorite players and I had just started playing pedal steel.
I responded to the ad and they responded back for an audition, where I met Brian, Phil’s youngest son. The audition was at their house and I had never really listened to the Dead. I’d kind of avoided it because I didn’t understand what it was all about. I get there and I see all these pictures of this guy with Warren Haynes and Jerry and all these crazy musicians all over the wall, and I’m like, “Where am I right now?”
I got the gig and I played with Brian for a couple of years. Then they were getting ready to open Terrapin. The Leshes and I were at a mutual friend’s Christmas party and I said to Phil and Jill, “If you ever need any help down at Terrapin, I would love to be a part of it. What you’re trying to build sounds really cool.” It snowballed from there.
What responsibilities did you originally have at Terrapin?
At first, I was helping out with the audio and the video for the web streams that we were doing at the Phil Lesh & Friends shows. I was also working with Robbie Taylor, who is Phil’s production manager. I was his assistant, in a way.
I was also playing, so when we did the soft opening where it was four shows in the restaurant with Jackie [Greene], Grahame [Lesh], Nicki [Bluhm], Railroad Earth and Bob [Weir], I was learning [Grateful Dead] songs because I’d never listened to the stuff before and I was playing guitar. That was quite a trip.
How did you progress to your current role as Phil’s tour manager?
As Terrapin Crossroads has grown, my role has changed. After being a production assistant, it grew to me just being a musician for a year, where I was playing as much as possible. During that time, Brian and I were also booking all of the music in the bar as that grew.
When we first started out, we would just have random shows. Phil would give me a call in the afternoon and be like, “Hey, you want to play a show with me and Jackie tonight?” That was how lowkey it was, and it’s grown into a full thing where we have two or three sets of music every day at the bar.
Brian and I started booking those shows. Now we have all kinds of outside bands coming in and doing shows in the Grate Room, which we didn’t used to do in the beginning, so I took care of those bookings as well. We also do outdoor shows now—we basically put on a small festival once a month during the summertime. We’re just constantly growing and changing, so I step in and help out with whatever needs to happen.
I handle the tour manager duties for all the road trips and help out with the production needs as well. Jill is pretty much Phil’s business manager, if you will. At one point, they were looking for a new tour manager—this was around Phil’s 74th birthday run at The Capitol Theatre in 2014—and I had already started taking on more at Terrapin at that time, and tour managing was always something that interested me. It was something that I thought I could handle and enjoyed doing and, when the opportunity came up, I jumped on it and it’s been a lot of fun over the last two years.
Basically, over the last five years, I’ve had my hands in a little bit of everything, every part of putting the show together, from booking the band in the first place and putting the Phil & Friends lineup together to running sound to being a guitarist to even helping out with security if necessary. Just having that experience over the last five years has been great, so I’ve seen every facet of a venue and of a show.
I don’t know that there’s been a whole lot that we’ve changed at Terrapin other than running things more smoothly. When we first started, we had never run a venue. We were figuring it out as we went along, and it’s been really cool working for people with that much trust—that know that everything might not be perfect the first time, but we’re all working toward the same goal and same experience for everyone in the band to be proud. We’re all wanting to have the same experience and doing whatever it takes to get there.
What was an early lesson you learned as you started entering this world and working with Phil and Terrapin Crossroads?
I learned a lot by just getting to work with Robbie Taylor—his philosophy of always [being] ready for anything and having everything ready to go early and not getting frazzled or thrown off track when things don’t necessarily happen on schedule. As everybody knows, Grateful Dead time is a little different than standard time. Just the way he handles himself has been an inspiring thing to be around.
You were pretty involved in Fare Thee Well, as far as serving as the middleman between the promoters and Phil. Can you talk about your experience working on those shows?
It was a complete honor and I took it really seriously. I was thrilled to be in my position. There would be tons of little things that would pop up, but it really was just another show. At the end of the day, it’s just a band on a stage playing to a crowd, just like anywhere else. But, the thing that was eyeopening for me was that I had never been to a show like that as a fan or working—seeing how much goes into it was pretty cool.
Were there any takeaways from that experience that you’ve applied to your current job?
I never really listened to the Dead before. I never saw the Dead live and Terrapin has been my main window into that world. So it was great to see a glimpse of what it was like when they were going full steam and to see Phil playing on a big stage like that—just to get to see the community on that level and see how powerful the music really is.
What’s your most vivid memory from Fare Thee Well?
After the last Fare Thee Well show in Chicago, I was pretty beat, as you can imagine. It had been a long couple of months leading up to it and a long few days. Everyone was all done and getting ready to leave at 2 a.m. I had just been waiting for this moment to chill and go to bed after the final show. As I’m getting ready to leave, I get a call from Brian Sarkin, who was working with us, and he said he was bringing Bill Murray over to the dressing room. I never thought I’d be disappointed to see Bill Murray, but he came and we were over there for another hour or so. So after the final night of Fare Thee Well, we were hanging out with Bill Murray and everybody.