When Jerry Garcia emerged from a life-threatening coma in 1986, his health wasn’t all that he regained. Judging from the Grateful Dead’s renaissance and two new releases from Garcia — one as a bandleader, one as half of a duet — Garcia’s instrumental abilities and venturesome musical spirit have returned stronger than ever. The latest flurry of activity by Garcia recalls the early to mid-Seventies, when, in addition to piloting the Grateful Dead through one of their most fruitful periods, he maintained a prolific solo career and participated in side projects like New Riders of the Purple Sage and Old and in the Way.
Jerry Garcia Band, a live double album, finds the guitarist interpreting cover material the way jazz players do. After a fairly faithful exposition of a song, be it by Dylan or the Temptations, Garcia and the band use its basic framework as a point of departure for long, improvisational solos. At times they venture so far that hearing them find their way back is half the fun. “Don’t Let Go,” a rockabilly bopper from the Fifties, evolves into a spacey jam, eventually reentering Earth’s atmosphere in time for a few more runs through its good-time chorus. Throughout the album the Garcia band sounds well rehearsed, and the solidly arranged background vocals shore up the tunes with a tidy professionalism the Dead are rarely wont to muster. Garcia sideman Melvin Seals keeps things on track with his soul-inflected organ playing, which owes as much to Memphis as to San Francisco. Garcia himself targets notes with the aim of a Zen archer. More than at any other time in the past fifteen years, you can hear him developing ideas in the moment without a lot of floundering. Overall, this is a surprisingly wide-awake live album that deserves to be heard by more than the usual corps of Jerryatrics.
Garcia’s untitled collaboration with mandolin player David “Dawg” Grisman is an acoustic showcase that harks back to the exchanges between guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. The mood is convivial, the playing crisp and clean. Garcia and Grisman, whose friendship dates back to 1964, are sufficiently versed in the formal conventions of folk and bluegrass to bend them to their own eclectic ends. Joined by stand-up bassist Jim Kerwin and percussionist-fiddler Joe Craven, they tackle everything from a high-spirited jazz-grass romp (“Grateful Dawg”) to Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” and Grisman’s own 3/4 lullaby “Dawg’s Waltz.” Jewel-like notes from Grisman’s mandolin decorate “Friend of the Devil,” a stately remake of the Dead’s folkish, uptempo original. They save the best for last: “Arabia,” a compelling, suitelike excursion into Middle Eastern modality that sustains its exotic mood and momentum for over sixteen minutes.
Finally, the Grateful Dead have delved into their private stock for One From the Vault, released by the group’s custom merchandising arm. It is a sort of legal bootleg — the first of a promised series — though it doesn’t spring from the same motives as Frank Zappa’s Beat the Boots series, because the Dead have never discouraged taping of their shows. It is, rather, a high-quality recording of a legendary 1975 concert at the Great American Music Hall, in San Francisco, on August 13th, 1975; homemade tapes of the show have circulated among Deadheads for years. Its release performs a service not just for die-hard fans but for anyone with an interest in the group, because it is a remarkable show from start to finish.
The show, held in the middle of a two-year hiatus from touring, served largely to première material from Blues for Allah a few weeks before the album’s release. The album was the closest the Dead came in the Seventies to the band’s trippy, late-Sixties peak, and the performance indulged the group’s jazzy, free-form impulses even further. “Help on the Way,” “Franklin’s Tower” and “The Music Never Stopped” cohere into a twenty-minute song cycle. “King Solomon’s Marbles,” a tumbling, polyrhythmic instrumental by bassist Phil Lesh, crackles with energy. Inventive percussion duets by Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann are appended to “Eyes of the World,” as well as to the pretty, elliptical “Crazy Fingers.” The crowning touch is “Blues for Allah,” which runs 21:01 on One From the Vault and explores inner space with a meditative intensity barely hinted at on the studio version.