The first and only live JGB album released while its namesake was alive, Jerry Garcia Band remains the benchmark for all the others that would come to see the light of day after ’95.
It wasn’t random, either, that this debut of sorts was culled from a spring ’90 run at the Warfield. After a decade of ups and downs in terms of live quality from both the Dead and solo projects, the powers that be obviously realized performance had reached a more consistent plateau during 1989-90 and the timing was right. So fans got not only these two discs, but the first Grateful Dead live album in nine years (Without A Net). TPTB even returned to tapes from this Warfield run to assemble How Sweet It Is … as the first posthumous JGB release in 1997.
Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers’ “The Way You Do The Things You Do” opener makes the whole situation clear. The warmth of the recording, the stereo placement (reflecting the band’s stage configuration), and the way the space inside the arrangement is just there … it’s a beautiful thing.
That’s before Garcia’s easygoing dotted-eighth solo, which is followed by Melvin Seals’ introduction as Garcia’s only instrumental foil. The keyboardist plays the role with an often relaxed but full (and occasionally piercing) style that embodies the way JGB was its own thing, very comfortably and independently, apart from the Grateful Dead’s sonic recipe.
And yeah, like so many other tracks on these two discs, it doesn’t hurt that the song itself is a flat-out classic.
Game Respects Game
The Beatles and Dylan tracks clinched this sale for me many years ago, contents unheard, and they didn’t disappoint. Garcia takes us through “Simple Twist Of Fate”, telling the story with voice and guitar.
His first solo stays low-key over the arrangement’s melancholy stroll, while the second paints that tale a different way through Garcia’s choices and phrasing. If there’s any recurring minor fault in the set, it’s the occasional John Kahn or Seals solo that goes around once more than it really needed to, but it’s not like Kahn is trying to make us forget which song it is, which I appreciate.
“Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” is less famous, but the picture it paints is just as powerful, thanks to Garcia’s reverence in delivering what is just a hell of a lyric framed well by Seals’ overcast organ work.
Seals insinuates his own riff into “Dear Prudence” right from the start, and it’s just part of the song to me now, which is no small task when you’re covering the Beatles. In fact, Melvin is the star here, moving from nimble organ figures to punctuating piano block chords, and on to a jaunty semi-gospel tack when Garcia gets busy and shifts to more of a rock approach on his own solo.
Again, the focus on the song comes through. Garcia’s solo is pretty extended, but he continually comes back to work the basic progression before Melvin’s sweeping chords signal the wrapup.
‘Don’t Let Go’ Lets Go
While the JGB dial is set squarely on “Chill,” they do pick it up now and then. They break out a couple of new moves with some boogie-woogie shuffle teamed with great “doot doot doot” backup vocals in Los Lobos’ “Evangeline” (the youngest song here, circa 1985). And the first disc closes with the set’s only Garcia/Hunter song, a typical “Deal”.
As for songs I didn’t even know when I bought this, the favorite is “My Sisters & Brothers”. I may not be much of a gospel guy philosophically speaking, but everyone like to hear that it’ll be all right every now and then, and there’s no other way I’d rather hear it. Maria Muldaur also covered this some years before, and it ain’t no “Midnight At The Oasis”.
“Don’t Let Go” is the collection’s sole nod to more of a Dead sensibility, where they perform Jesse Stone’s old hit but insert a serious departure of a jam into the middle. Everyone is playing things they haven’t played all night, and that eventually pushes Garcia into fifth-gear territory in his own playing.
Peaking At The End
It’s not quite fair to say that they save the best for last in the homestretch of disc two, but … well, yeah, they save the best for last. A defiantly slow recounting of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” boasts a few lovely layers, ranging from Seals’ ruminations over the second verse to a couple of sounds coaxed from Garcia’s guitar that evoke a certain rearguard sound that won’t offend your internal sensibilities.
At last, the set closes with two powerhouses that could not be more different. To start, Garcia’s vocal on “Lucky Old Sun” is more penetrating than Ray Charles’. If I bought this for the Beatles and Dylan covers, this cover and “My Sisters & Brothers” are the reasons I will never, ever sell it.
It’s not quite fair to say that they save the best for last, but … well, yeah, they save the best for last. Including a defiantly slow, lovingly layered recounting of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.
It’s heartbreaking in the best way possible to hear Jerry sing, “Show me that river … take me across … wash all my troubles away ….” And then the weary longing of “Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do / ‘Cept roll around heaven all day …” Maybe Melvin goes a little overboard toward the end of his solo, but that can’t spoil one of the few five-star covers in my iPod.
“Tangled Up In Blue” … what can you say? They stay pretty faithful, the rhythm section rolling some fills and clusters of bass in there along the way. And then Garcia squares up to the last solo of the night and knocks it out of the park. It’s a very strong finish to the only live Jerry Garcia Band set you need to own. You may need to find it on eBay, but it’s worth the effort.
(2021 postscript – Sad to see I didn’t find room to mention Bruce Cockburn’s “Waiting On A Miracle”. Not sure about CD availability, but the set has recently and finally received a vinyl release.)
Jerry Garcia Band
Jerry Garcia Band
Spring ’90 @ Warfield Theater
San Francisco, CA
CD 1 – the way you do the things you do / waiting for a miracle / simple twist of fate / get out of my life / my sister and brothers / i shall be released / dear prudence / deal
CD 2 – stop that train / senor (tales of yankee power) / evangeline / the night they drove old dixie down / don’t let go / that lucky old sun / tangled up in blue