In late July of 1990, the Grateful Dead’s keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose, dismantling parts of the Dead’s late-summer tour. Instead of altogether canceling the band’s hometown Bay Area date, bandleader Jerry Garcia pieced together his side project touring band and gave a performance for the ages. By setlist alone, the Shoreline concert from September 1, 1990, is stellar. The Garcia Band’s song list includes everything from soul classics (“How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You”; “I Second That Emotion”) to rock anthems (“Dear Prudence”; “And It Stoned Me”; “Tangled Up in Blue”) to Garcia band originals (“Deal”; “Run for the Roses”). Despite the fact that the band successfully pulls songs from all over the board, it truly is the performance that makes this show magical.
It is unfortunate that the videographers of this concert could not have done anything more exciting with their footage. It’s hard to fault the editors who had to make something of this banal video footage, mostly of Garcia himself whose stage presence is sedated if not downright sleepy. Watching his fingers tour the nooks and crannies of his guitar is certainly noteworthy, but the visual of the Jerry Garcia Band is certainly not the band’s strong suit in the first place. Throughout Shoreline strange slow motion is used to mimic a jam sequence’s mood but overall this DVD has a minimal and reasonable amount of this silly video trickery. However “boring” this video footage might be, it’s much preferred to the Grateful Dead videos whose footage was interspersed with tacky computer-generated “psychedelic” visual segues between camera angles. Similar visual aides have been added to mimic the brilliant Grateful Dead light show but simply came to categorize these concert films into the schlock pile for visual purists. (Others, I’m sure, found the efforts admirable.)
Technicalities aside, though, the Jerry Garcia Band is simply magical in this performance. Garcia and bassist John Kahn seem to coexist in their ability to predict one another. Melvin Seals’ keyboard work is perhaps what sets this band off from the Grateful Dead the most and, on Shoreline, Seals shines. His ability to keep up with Garcia and Kahn is remarkable and his contributions on keyboard and organ arguably do more for the backbone of this music than drummer David Kemper does. This is not to discount Kemper’s talents as much as it is to herald Seals’. Garcia’s guitar solo in the Jerry Garcia Band staple “Don’t Let Go” is followed by a remarkably eerie organ swell and drum fills that transform the moment into something completely new, something different, in mere seconds.
The greatest moment, though, comes in the encore, in the weary performance of “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day).” The song does not represent the Garcia Band’s wandering qualities or their extents as musicians—none of that. It’s simply performed with perfection. Garcia’s voice is as impassioned as it gets and harmony singers Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones back him up with a sadness reminiscent of gospel mourning. Seals sways from subtle organ tones to enormous swells. In this moment it is easy to recognize an emotive quality in the Jerry Garcia Band that is often lacking (or simply not appropriate) in even the Grateful Dead’s greatest moments. The Jerry Garcia Band, overall, exudes a laid back musical attitude reminiscent of the Dead’s toward its final years but Garcia Band takes it to a whole new level. This music is soothing and unrestrained, just like it should be, just like we expect it to be.
The only bonus features on Shoreline are two interviews. The first, with Garcia Band/Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter, is simply a series of quotes from him (not an actual complete interview), but Hunter offers explanations of Garcia himself, the way he was perceived by the public, and the makeup of JGB versus the Grateful Dead. The second is with the remaining members of the Jerry Garcia Band and Garcia biographer Blair Jackson offering even more insight into the band’s mysterious namesake. These interviews are by no means necessary to listen or watch the Shoreline performance but for what they are, for supplement, they offer insight into the band and its performances that deepen this DVD experience exponentially. In fact, for those already familiar with the band it would be beneficial to watch the interviews before the performance and explore what these collaborators’ insights add to the experience.
Is Shoreline going to convert any Garcia/Dead haters into superfans? Of course not. There’s one thing about the relative reliability of Jerry Garcia’s music: you either love it or you hate it. But for what it is, and this coming from someone who finds Garcia’s “solo” work lackluster compared to that behemoth Grateful Dead catalog, Live at Shoreline is nearly flawless.