Doug Collette joined All About Jazz in 2003
DC writes regularly about rock and roll, jazz and the blues, composing reviews of CD's, DVD's, live performances, books and films, as well as conducting interviews.
Jerry Garcia will forever be known primarily as the bespectacled, cheerily voluble, Zen-like figurehead of the Grateful Dead. But just as he established a solo career slowly and surely beginning in the early '70s, as both creative outlet and respite from the Dead as overweening monolith, his work with his various bands will surely gain posthumous prominence and, based on two recent releases, deservedly so.
Pure Jerry is a series established by the late guitarist/songwriter's estate to feature significant release from Garcia's 'solo' excursions and its first release was issued late in the summer, a sterling show from 1977 that shows just how effectively Jerry managed to escape the weight of the Dead, yet retain the best qualities of that legendary band. After Midnight is another high-quality three-CD set recorded in 1980 (also available on-line in an expanded version) with a markedly different JGB lineup on which the Dead icon effectively frees himself from the baggage of the band altogether. Above all other virtues of these sets, plus their curiosity quotient, is the magnificent sound quality of the recordings which bring the listener front-row center at each of the shows.
Theatre 1839 is a summer performance in which Garcia effectively expands the reach of his music beyond the increasingly confined spectrum of Grateful Dead, while at the same time preserving some of their music's distinctive qualities. Not surprisingly, Jerry's band at this time included Keith and Donna Godchaux, who had been part of the Dead retinue since early in the decade; their presence is notable for the admirable restraint displayed by the latter, especially as she chimes in on lovable covers such as the Temptations "I Second that Emotion." The world-weary take on The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, " finds Garcia putting himself and his audience in touch with history both musical and cultural and while the sturdy accompaniment Keith supplies here lacks some of the clarity and contrast of interplay with Jerry's guitar work as captured with the Dead, that's in large measure due to a important change in tone on Garcia's part: the tone of his guitar solos, fills and rhythm work, particularly on reggae coves including "Stir It Up" and "The Harder They Come," is earthier and warmer, with much less of a psychedelic edge.
That's true even of the tracks where Garcia borrows from Grateful Dead canon. He slows down "Friend of the Devil" dramatically, rendering it less like a bluegrass archetype, than an age-old folk ballad. "They Love Each other" has the floating bounce of dyed-in-the-wool Dead originals such as "Scarlet Begonias," but Jerry imparts a more personal slant to the lyrics in his reading here, supplying confirmation of his emotion with the delicacy of his guitar work, its fine acoustic-like texture reminiscent of the man's folk and country roots. "Mystery Train" opens the show with a slow patient chug, exemplifying how serene was Garcia in setting a mood and establishing a groove with his band(s), without every straining for effect; much of the credit here has to go to John Kahn, the ever- present bassist of so many JGB projects over the years, as he holds down the bottom with his full- sounding tones, yet remains sufficiently aggressive to spur on the band as well as its leader.
Kahn's presence is especially noteworthy on the covers of Bob Dylan material, the likes of which are some of, if not the most, arresting inclusions in the Jerry Garcia solo discography. Garcia clearly appreciated Dylan's song not just for their scintillating wordplay and emotional imagery, but for the way bob could sculpt a melody that reinforces the thrust of the lyrics. Accordingly, Jerry takes both "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate," arguably the pillars of the colossal Blood on the Tracks album, at a deliberate pace that might enervate some listeners, but which nonetheless gives the distinct impression the artist regards his interpretation as a (re) discovery of the song itself.
Jerry Garcia Band
After Midnight: Kean College, 2/28/80
Garcia renders "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" on After Midnight in much the same way, as his drawn-out vocal seems to be gently easing the feeling of resignation little by little from the somewhat morose lyrics, even as the easy-going reggae arrangement serves to buoy his spirit. Jerry's innate vulnerability came through most clearly in his singing, but as the years went on, and his health declinedin part, as collaborator Robert Hunter suggests so diplomatically in his liner notes to this triple-set (where he actually appears on two tracks, from his stint as the tour opener)the strain of singing at all left his vocals often ragged and bereft of this near ineffable quality.
This show, recorded at Kean College in New Jersey, is less memorable than its companion piece, in large part because the band is less distinctive (with, of course, the notable exception of 'anchorman' Kahn). The quartet is noticeably lacking in personality, except perhaps in the negative as keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers should've been relegated to only organ and piano: such cheesy synthesizer work is what gives the decade of the Eighties its instrumental stereotype, but Garcia did have a penchant for new sounds for their own sake. And, as the initial tour with this lineup, there's much more of a sense of Jerry Garcia as leader with sidemen, rather than a full-fledged band of equals
But that ultimately works to the advantage of the group and those who hear this package. Garcia is truly reveling in the music he's making with his four-piece as a means of reconnecting with the pleasure of playing in a less stylized, pre-determined format than the Grateful Dead had at this point succumbed to; there's a radiant pleasure you hear in Jerry's singing on "How Sweet It Is to be Loved By You" and his reading of "I'll Tale a Melody" is the sound of a seasoned musician enjoying a good song for its own sake, free of cliché. "Sugaree' is the lone tune associated at all with Jerry's primary occupationit comes from his eponymous first solo albumand Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate" reappears in a more knowing rendition, the soft inflections of Garcia's voice reflected in the muted guitar.
The highlight of the set, however, recalls another rock icon of the times, Eric Clapton (for a second time, in fact, as the arrangement of "Heaven's Door" mirrored Slowhand's from early in his solo career) and Garcia one-ups the Brit by skipping with agility through this set's title song, before angling himself and the band through a crisp instrumental excursion of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby;" even without lyrics, the pathos of the song is unmistakable, cementing Jerry's status as an interpretive artist as well as an impeccable improvisational musician. The way he twirls of electric guitar runs is the essence of effortless, but he poignancy he communicates from the great McCartney composition is unmistakably artful
It misrepresents this package to say that single interweaving of famous material is alone worth the price of the CDs. The juxtaposition of roots material such as Hank Ballard's "Tore Up Over You" next to a originals like the vivid "Mission in the Rain" and Peter Rowan's (of Rowan Bros bluegrass fame) "Midnight Moonlight" is an object lesson in adept musicology on the part of a man who was ultimately a modern encyclopedia of music. Future releases in the Pure Jerry series (such as the set from the 1987 Broadway run just out), as well as other archival treasures, are bound to expand our perceptions of Jerry Garcia as a musician and band leader, which is really what his deceptively insatiable, understated urge to create was really all about.
Visit Jerry Garcia on the web at www.jerrygarcia.com .
CD1: 1. Mystery Train; 2. Russian Lullaby; 3. That's What Love Will Make You Do; 4. Stir It Up; 5. Simple Twist Of Fate; 6. The Way You Do The Things You Do; 7. Catfish John. CD 2: 1. Friend Of The Devil; 2. Don't Let Go; 3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 4. They Love Each Other; 5. I Second That Emotion; 6. Let Me Roll It. CD 3: 1. The Harder They Come; 2. Gomorrah; 3. Tore Up Over You; 4. Tangled Up In Blue; 5. My Sisters And Brothers.
Disc One (Early Show): Sugaree; Catfish John; That's What Love Will Make You Do; Simple Twist of Fate; Disc Two (Early Show); How Sweet It Is; After Midnight; Eleanor Rigby; After Midnight; Disc Three (Late Show); I'll Take A Melody; Tore Up Over You; Knockin' On Heaven's Door; The Harder They Come; Tiger Rose (Robert Hunter vocals); Promontory Rider (Robert Hunter vocals); Mission In The Rain; Midnight Moonlight.
Jerry Garcia: guitar and vocals; John Kahn: bass; Ron Tutt: drums; Keith Godchaux: keyboards and vocals; Donna Godchaux: vocals.
Jerry Garcia: guitar and vocals; John kahn: bass; Ozzie Ahlers: keyboards and vocals; Johnny De Fonseca: drums.
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