Almost a decade after his passing, appreciation for Jerry Garcia as a quintessential American artist has replaced the Cosmic Noodler stereotype. He took the trinity of American roots music — blues, country and jazz — and melded it into a unique hybrid, a true American beauty that is his legacy.
The six-CD All Good Things contains five studio albums, plus hours of superior outtakes by the various incarnations of the Jerry Garcia Band. As his friend and lyricist Robert Hunter candidly admits in the superb liner notes, these solo collections are decidedly “a mixed lot.” Anyone expecting spacey improvs is in for a surprise. Garcia is attempting here to put aside what he termed the Dead’s “call of the Weird” and work on his songwriting, arranging and other skills while having just a whole lot of fun. Essentially, there’s the first album, 1972’s Garcia, and then there’s everything else. The Dead’s finest live albums, Live Dead and Europe ’72, as well as their most enduring studio albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, emerged during this same early-Seventies period. Drawing on the stark lines of Workingman’s Dead, and the exultant melodies and harmonies of American Beauty, Garcia is the missing link that completes a trilogy of their best studio work and is arguably the greatest of the lot. Garcia plays all the instruments (including keyboards and pedal steel) except for drums, ably handled by Dead-beat Bill Kreutzmann. Featuring “Deal,” “Bird Song,” “Sugaree,” “Loser,” “To Lay Me Down” and “The Wheel,” Garcia offers easily the best run of spiritually and aesthetically profound compositions to be found on any Grateful Dead project.
On 1974’s Garcia (Compliments), he pulls a complete 180 on us. Instead of the DIY approach, Garcia hires a gaggle of top sessionmen to back him on a collection of cover tunes, ranging from a Django Reinhardt homage on Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” to a duet with Maria Muldaur on the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” that stirs the heart as well as the hormones. Reflections, from 1976, features his Dead bandmates on half the tracks, including “Orpheus,” a bonus jam that finds them flirting with Miles Davis-inspired jazz fusion. The title cut from 1978’s Cats Under the Stars as well as that album’s wry “Gomorrah” became Dead staples. Run for the Roses (1982) was Garcia’s last studiorelease and contains surprisingly effective covers of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Dear Prudence”; also nifty are the Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan covers.
Casual Garcia fans may want to think twice about spending seventy-five bucks on this box set. All you really need from All Good Things is the superb Garcia album, although hopefully the entire box will appear on iTunes so you can grab the few primo cuts from the other five discs. Remember, though: Other boxes, like, say, Rhino’s recent Black Sabbath set, may have more killer and less filler, but Ben and Jerry are nevergoing to come out with Black Sabbath Licorice Sludge Swirl ice cream.