Album Reviews

Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders

GarciaLive Volume Six: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders

Artist:     Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders

Album:     GarciaLive Volume Six

Label:     ATO Records

Release Date:     06/24/2016


More than 20 years after Jerry Garcia’s death, the vaults remain filled with enough unreleased live material to keep multiple archivists busy. Dick’s PicksRoad Trips and Dead Downloads meet the need of Dead Heads for different takes and combinations of the Grateful Dead canon while the newer GarciaLive series, launched in 2013 and overseen by the Garcia family, focuses on Jerry’s many musical side projects.

Garcia was a modern-day minstrel, playing music whenever and wherever he could. Whether in arena-size venues or tiny clubs, Jerry simply got together with friends and played. Among his more celebrated collaborations was with Bay Area keyboardist Merl Saunders. The two connected in 1970 and gigged on and off throughout the decade. Their shows from Berkeley’s Keystone, recorded and released in 1973, have remained among Jerry’s most enduring non-Dead collections, spawning several followup volumes to satisfy completists.

Now available as Volume Six of the GarciaLive series is a show that pre-dates the Keystone performances. Recorded at the 200-seat Lion’s Share club in San Anselmo on July 5, 1973, the three-CD set features 14 songs, including some not available on any of the Keystone releases. As at the Keystone sessions, Jerry and Merl are joined by John Kahn on bass and Bill Vitt on drums.

The Lion’s Share set opens with a slow-burning “After Midnight” followed by a bluesy “Someday Baby” (known to Allman Brothers fans as “Trouble No More”). Merl encouraged Jerry to expand his interpretation of covers beyond bluegrass and country to embrace Motown classics like “I Second That Emotion” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Both are featured here and went on to become standards of Jerry’s solo shows. A cover not included on the Keystone collections is a soulful version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that closes the first set.

Jerry’s vocals are strong and tender on “Like A Road” and there’s plenty of funk from Merl’s side of the ledger. Fans of the Keystone releases should already be familiar with jams like “Finders Keepers,” and Merl bares his barroom wail on “The System.” Anyone who doubts that Jerry could legitimately lay claim to jazz chops needs to sample “My Funny Valentine,” a near 20-minute improvisational excursion. In addition to Jerry’s guitar and Merl’s organ, some over-the-top trumpet raises the band’s level to one of the evening’s highest points. Despite best efforts, the horn player remains unknown, but the fact that the scene attracted top jazz names of the day makes it a mystery for forensic musicologists.

If you find yourself looking for still more, check out GaricaLive Volume Three, a 1974 show of Jerry, Merl and John Kahn joined by Ron Tutt on drums and Martin Fierro on sax. Performing as the Legion of Mary, this short-lived iteration covered similar ground with some interesting detours. The GarciaLive series is a welcome addition for fans who appreciate Jerry’s moonlighting and exploration of styles beyond the Dead. Two new volumes are expected this year, with more to come to burnish and expand Jerry’s musical legacy.

-Lou Montesano

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