“I played piano, violin and sang on that show,” Crosby recalled the other day, speaking on the phone from his home in Mill Valley. “And then Phil had to leave, but the show kept going and we were on live. So Bob said, ‘Who’s going to play bass?’ and looked at me. They went and got me a bass and I ended up playing four instruments in one broadcast.”
A modest 39-year-old with an easy laugh and friendly demeanor, Crosby has played with Clapton, Springsteen, Santana, any number of superstars. But he was as blown away by what had gone down that night at TRI as anyone.
“That was a crazy moment for me,” he said. “I’d only been here a month, and there I was singing and playing guitar between Bob and Phil on ‘Lazy River Road.’ And if that weren’t enough, I got to play all those other instruments and then take over on bass for Phil after he left. I was asking myself, ‘What’s going on here?’ If you list the reasons why I left New York and came here, you could point to that moment as one of them.”
Crosby (no relation to Bing or David) is one of those naturally gifted musicians who can play just about anything he picks up. He began taking violin lessons when he was 2. At 4, he was picking out violin tunes on the piano, discovering he has perfect pitch.
“Many lessons and instruments followed,” he said with a laugh. “Perfect pitch helps particularly on fretless instruments like violin or a viola.”
His arsenal also includes Hammond B-3 organ, trumpet, French horn, baritone horn, guitar, bass, mandolin and percussion.
“They all feel natural,” he said. “It’s all just music to me.”
In high school, he toured the world playing classical music as one of the youngest members of the Long Island Youth Orchestra.
“They used me as a swing man,” he said. “Depending on the different works we were playing, I’d be in the string section or the horn section, playing timpani in the percussion section or covering the harp parts on piano. That translated later on to being the utility guy in the improv world.”
Crosby promised his parents that if he wasn’t making a living playing music by the time he was 21, he’d go to college. He made good on his promise. Sort of. After high school, he was briefly a business major before going on the road with Grammy-winning bassist Oteil Burbridge and his band, the Peacemakers.
That led to three years of touring and recording with blues singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, wife of guitarist Derek Trucks. When she took a year off to have a baby, Crosby joined pedal steel sensation Robert Randolph’s Family Band.
“I made the transition at the right time,” he said. “Robert was blowing up. We played on the Grammys and toured with Eric Clapton for six months and then with Santana. I got to play a bunch of violin with Santana in 2005. Between Susan and Robert I barely saw home from 2000 to 2008. I was on the road over 200 days a year.”
Clapton guested on Randolph’s 2006 album “Colorblind,” ripping a guitar solo over Crosby’s soaring B-3 track on “Jesus Is Just Alright.”
“On the liner notes of that CD, our names, in alphabetical order, are right next to each other,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I never thought that would happen.'”
After a year on the road with the Blind Boys of Alabama, Crosby, who’s single, took a break from touring, staying home in New York, playing his own music, producing records, doing session work. A year ago, Lesh brought him to Marin to play some shows with him at his Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael.
“I stayed an extra week or two and that’s when I connected with Bob (Weir),” he said. “I did a couple of ‘Weir Here’ broadcasts and then Bob and his TRI crew convinced me to stay, saying there’s no reason for me to go back to New York. I moved my stuff here last April and early May.”
Crosby played on American Idol winner Phillip Phillip’s debut album, “The World from the Side of the Moon,” which went platinum. But he turned down an offer to tour with Phillips’ road band, preferring to stay in Marin and establish himself in his new home.
“It was a real tempting offer,” he said. “It’s good money and you get to go to Rock in Rio and all this great stuff. But it really would have taken me away for a long time. I decided to stick around. I wanted to solidify my thing here.”
Since then, he’s been playing with Lesh, Weir and with Shana Morrison’s band. On Monday, he’ll celebrate his 40th birthday at Sweetwater Music Hall with Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz from the Animal Liberation Orchestra, Stu Allen, Reed Mathis from Tea Leaf Green and who knows who else will show up.
“With my 40th birthday coming up, I’ve been in a reflecting mode,” Crosby said. “It’s been a 20-year ride of playing music for a living, and that’s a victory in itself. I’ve been really lucky and thankful for all the amazing people I’ve been able to play with here. It’s really been a great experience. I’m soaking it all in.”