If Garcia is any indication of what to expect from Round Records, the Grateful Dead’s new spin-off label ought to be rechristened Flat. The production (pinned on John Kahn) seems determined to deprive the music of all edge, contrast and excitement (if there was any to begin with). Garcia boasts a lot of talent (Richard Greene, Maria Muldaur, Michael O’Martian, Amos Garrett and many others), but it all comes out jejune easy listening. “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” for instance, is so lifeless that the evening in question will presumably be passed playing canasta. “Let It Rock” simply doesn’t.
Jerry Garcia must shoulder most of the blame himself. As usual his singing — and he sings a great deal — is expressionless and limp. And he calls attention to his inadequacy by attempting songs which bring to mind great vocalists: “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” (Smokey Robinson), “He Ain’t Give You None” (Van Morrison) and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (Mick Jagger). All this might be forgiven if the album offered generous helpings of Garcia on guitar, but Garcia restricts himself to infrequent and unobtrusive lines which are letter-perfect yet conventional and characterless, as if he were an anonymous session guitarist.
Still, it’s puzzling that the album is as dull as it is. For the choice of songs is interesting (there’s a version of Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby”) and the material ranges from blues to soul to rock to pop. Garcia experiments with a promising number of different musical settings: brass, a bevy of clarinets and on two tracks a ten-piece string section. But despite the apparent variety, Garcia is monotonous, partly because of whatever it is that has afflicted the Dead of late.
It’s uncertain why (age? success? dope?) but incontrovertibly true that the Dead have begun to live up to their name. Sapped of the old exuberance and vitality, more often than not their music has sounded moribund, and the best that can be said of it is that it has been comfortable. But then, so is a bed, and music ought to wake one up. If the Dead have gone stale, one would expect Garcia’s ventures apart from the band to be fresher. This is far from the case, however, as his insipid records with organist Merle Saunders (also on Garcia) attest. To steal his own bluegrass group’s sobriquet, Jerry Garcia sounds Old and in the Way.