A beautiful acoustic set from Jerry Garcia and John Kahn
Pure Jerry Volume 8: Jerry Garcia and John Kahn – Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael California, February 28, 1986
(Jerry Made Live Recordings)
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
More than a decade after Jerry Garcia’s demise, the folks at Grateful Dead HQ just keep on pumping out archival releases at a rate that would exhaust all but the most ardent and financially flush of Deadheads. Sometimes the sheer volume of material available is simply overwhelming and it’s easy to suffer from Grateful Dead fatigue. After all, even with the band’s well deserved reputation for stylistic variation, how many versions of Friend of the Devil and Ripple does one really need to hear? Yet, every once in a while, a CD comes out that reminds me of what I found so exciting and wonderful about Garcia’s music when I first heard it so many years ago. This newly minted Jerry Garcia and John Kahn live acoustic CD – the first in the resurrected ‘Pure Jerry’ series – is such a release and is a musical delight from beginning to end.
Those who are familiar with Garcia’s biography know that this concert from 1986 took place during a difficult period in his professional life as well as an all time low in terms of his physical well being. By this time, Garcia had been using opiates for nearly a decade and was riding a downward spiral that would throw him into a coma in just a few short months. Yet, those looking to see this personal decline reflected in the music from this live recording will be sorely disappointed. While the acoustic music that Garcia and Kahn offer here lacks some of the virtuosity and innovation of his later work with David Grisman and Jerry’s voice is even rougher than usual, this live set from Marin nevertheless offers soulful readings of some of the guitarist’s favourite songs.
Though there are no real surprises in the set list, Garcia and Kahn play with an almost urgent sense of commitment that can be heard from the outset. As much as the two men’s motives for playing during this period were often denigrated or scoffed at for representing nothing more than a necessary way to earn drug money, nothing in their playing at the Marin Auditorium sounds tossed off or indifferent. As if to emphasize his engagement, Garcia came out swinging with a spirited rendition of Deep Elem Blues – replete with some truly dazzling fancy picking – that set the tone for the night. On song after song – from aching versions of little Sadie and Spike Driver Blues to a definitive version of Jack A Roe– the pair hone in on the emotional heart of each number and bring it home. Though he may have played each of the songs he offers here hundreds of times before, it sounds as if he’s still discovering interesting textures and riffs to explore on the spot. While John Kahn is not a musician of Garcia’s calibre, his intuitive bass lines reveal a player who could think on his feet and keep time with the guitarist’s roaming fancies.
In an album of highlights, it’s difficult to pick a standout track. The versions of Ripple and Friend of the Devil are beautiful, spare and evocative – with the vocals on the latter cut achieving a depth and maturity lacking on the original studio version, and the performances of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ and Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Oh Babe, it ain’t no lie’ are as good as he ever played. Yet, the duo’s courageous decision to explore ‘Bird Song’ in an expansive 11 minute version is surely the reason to buy this disc. A song that had long allowed the Grateful Dead to go off into some very interesting territory and one that had been played acoustically with the full band, Bird Song achieves a new voice and identity on this alternately fluid and appropriately haggard reading.
Despite all of the adulation and the increasingly cult like following that he attracted while he was alive – or perhaps because of it – Jerry Garcia remains a largely misunderstood and under-appreciated musician in the world at large. As outrageous as this may sound, it is sadly true. Those who love Garcia’s music often bury it under so much hyperbolic praise that it’s impossible for the uninitiated to hear it without prejudice. Conversely, those who hate his music have often heard very little of it and instead react to the Disney -fied version of the counterculture that has sprung up around the band’s legacy. Though Garcia will always be associated with psychedelics and the sixties, his interests extended far beyond that. For every aching guitar solo or sixty minute voyage through Dark Star he embarked on, there was a reworked Carter Family song or Django Rhinehart number he’d dusted off to show his listeners just how many corridors there are still to go down in the tower of song. Garcia’s was a talent too big to be quantified and contained. We won’t see another like him in our lifetimes, and it may take a long long time for fans and dissenters alike to appreciate how rare his gifts were. They may have been gifts that he squandered or wasn’t fully aware he was in possession of. That’s beside the point. Happily releases like this new live set from Marin in 1986 go a long way to giving his fans a fuller picture of his overall musical vision as it’s been fourteen summers since Jerry Garcia’s demise and his contributions to popular music are only just beginning to be understood.
This review appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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