Four-disc box set captures Garcia and Saunders having fun
The year was 1973 and 30-year-old Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was at the peak of his powers. But even as much as the Dead was touring in the early ‘70s, Jerry was a music fanatic who always wanted to keep busy. He played with a variety of side projects, but his partnership with keyboardist Merl Saunders would become one of his longest lasting musical (and personal) friendships. It was Saunders who helped Garcia regain his musical motor skills after the stroke and coma that nearly killed him in 1986. These recordings from a couple of live gigs at Berkeley’s Keystone illustrate the dynamic chemistry between the duo in wide-ranging fashion.
The repertoire covers everything from blues, rock and reggae to jazz, funk, Motown, and Broadway. This was part of Garcia’s musical genius, his love for all kinds of music and ability to put it all together into his own thing, as opposed to so many artists that pigeonhole themselves in one genre. With bassist John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt, the quartet could and would dabble wherever the muses led. There’s a loose feel that allows Garcia to explore, knowing that his three band mates can follow him wherever he goes. Saunders had been playing club gigs with Garcia for three years at this point and it shows. There’s often a jazzy vibe where all four players will sometimes seem to be soloing at the same time, such as on the two 18-minute versions of “My Funny Valentine” (the four-disc collection features the complete recordings from June 10-11, 1973, with only a few songs repeated.) The band didn’t even really have a name, as Saunders notes in the liner notes by David Gans, but the gigs weren’t about trying to generate max publicity.
“Jerry’s really the guy who taught me the value of money – it don’t mean a fuckin’ thing. Having fun is what’s important,” said Saunders. And having fun is clearly what the band was doing at these gigs, without the pressure of having to entertain tens of thousands of Deadheads with particular expectations. The songs here represent a different sort of repertoire than the Dead had, but some of the jams reach a similar stratosphere, such as the smoking 11-minute take on the up-beat “Mystery Train”.
The cover of Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” is pure classic, with Garcia invoking a spiritual avatar vibe that he often was uncomfortable with yet couldn’t help but embody. An 11-minute jam on “I Second That Emotion” is another highlight, with Jerry and Merl riffing off each other in masterful fashion. There’s some great free form interplay on “Merl’s Tune”, where you can hear a funky space improv sound that has influenced countless modern jambands. The set also features some of Garcia’s best vocals, such as on heartfelt renditions of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry)”.
Keystone Companions isn’t the place to start for new fans, but for both aficionados and casual fans alike, it illustrates another side of the musical mastery that made Garcia one of the most influential artists and counterculture figures in modern history.