During the Grateful Dead‘s 1974–’76 sabbatical from live performances, few in the group took greater advantage of the creative freedom than Jerry Garcia, who formed the earliest incarnations of the Jerry Garcia Band during that period. Garcia wasn’t just intent on playing with other musicians, like his close pal and bass player John Kahn and, at different points, keyboardists Nicky Hopkins and James Booker. He also wanted to wade into genres where the Dead rarely swam, and few examples are more stirring than “Mighty High,” the jubilant disco-gospel stomper, most famously recorded by the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
Garcia cut a version of the song for his 1978 studio album Cats Under the Stars but dropped it from the final sequence (it was later included in a deluxe edition of the album). But he was playing the tune live as early as 1976, and a rousing take of it is included in the latest archival release from the Garcia vaults: GarciaLive Volume Seven: November 8th, 1976 – Jerry Garcia Band, out August 19th.
On that night in the Palo Alto club Sophie’s – a former supermarket that would eventually be renamed the Keystone Palo Alto – Garcia was backed by a prime-era JGB lineup of Kahn, drummer Ron Tutt and his Dead compadres Keith and Donna Godchaux on piano and vocals, respectively. The no-boundaries eclecticism of the band is felt in versions of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” (slinky and less frenzied than Eric Clapton’s version), the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight” (which Garcia had earlier played with his bluegrass band, Old and in the Way), and Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.” As heard on this never-before-released set, the band also plays a turtle-race version of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” with Keith Godchaux’s keyboard replacing the acoustic guitars and mandolin of the original.
Even among that seemingly random collection of covers, “Mighty High” stands apart. Also covered by Gloria Gaynor, it was typical of the gospel songs Garcia and the Godchauxs would jam on together in the coastal town of Stinson Beach, where they all lived at that point. (Coincidentally, it was Donna Godchaux who recently came across these reels of tapes in a box in her home.)
The Garcia Band’s “Mighty High” recaptures the exuberant warmth of the Mighty Clouds’ take while adding its own touches: the mind-melding interplay between Garcia’s guitar and Kahn’s bass, Keith Godchaux’s loosey-goosey piano, and, of course, the very Dead-like length (nine minutes). Everybody in the band sounds as if they’re losing themselves in the groove. And even though he wasn’t a church-Sunday sort of guy, it’s easy to imagine Garcia connecting with the song’s God-set-me-free sentiments: For him at that moment, the Garcia Band was its own form of liberation and emancipation.