Best New Music of 2014: Jerry Garcia Band – Garcia Live, Vol. Four: March 22nd, 1978, Veteran’s Hall

Hello and welcome to an annual tradition around here: our month-long list of the year’s best new music! If you’re new, I’m Mark, editor of Extended Play and a contributor to websites like Bearded Gentlemen Music. Every day in December, I’ll run a short review of what I think was one of the best albums of 2014. Today: an archival release from a Grateful Dead solo project!

The Grateful Dead were always kind of a collaborative group, the sum of a few different minds, but generally people put Jerry Garcia in a special kind of spotlight. He would’ve disagreed, but he’s seen as the band’s leader and it’s most potent musical force. Indeed, his solo works spanned the gamut, touching on bluegrass, jazz-funk to bluesy country rock. And the man played a hell of a lot of live shows, too.

And the thing is, his music was always changing and evolving, especially on stage in the 70s. Sometimes it seems like it changed from month to month! But away from the Dead, his main outlet would eventually be The Jerry Garcia Band, a rotating cast of musicians centered around him and bassist John Kahn. Different lineups featured people like Ron Tutt, Merle Saunders and Essra Mowhawk, but I’m partial to the late 70s lineups myself. Which made volume four of the ongoing Garcia Live series an easy buy.

(Image via concertposterauction.com)

On March 22, 1978, Garcia and his backing band played a benefit show for the Sonoma County Stump, an alt-weekly newspaper. At this point, the band was a sextet, featuring Garcia, Kahn, two members of the Dead (Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux), Buzz Buchanan and Maria Mulder. On this night, they were joined by keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers, too. They just finished a run of shows on the East coast and about a month later, the Dead would start a tour of their own. You’d think with all this playing in such a short stretch, Garcia would’ve been burned out, but on this night him and the band shined.

Like most Garcia Band shows from this period, the music is generally pretty laid back. They slow songs down, play long, jammed-out covers, often stretching out for ten minutes! The first disc contains tasty, slow-jam versions of the Motown classics “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Second That Emotion,” plus a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” And it closes with a really slow, derge-like version of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” just dripping with raw emotion. Slowing the music down brings out the best in Garcia’s guitar playing, too: it’s more soulful and restrained while being less spacey than it is with the Dead at this time. There aren’t any moments of freeform madness, just a lot of runs between choruses. Honestly, I prefer this side of his playing.

Things heat up on the second disc. They rip into “The Harder They Fall”, giving it a quick reading that doesn’t always work for me (it reminds me of the parts of Shakedown Street I don’t like). But their version of “Cats Under the Stars,” off the then-new JGB album, is great: Garcia’s guitar slices like a knife and when his lead goes back-and-forth with the background singers, everything comes together in a way the album version never quite does. Indeed, this album shows how well Donna Jean and his playing went together – and makes you wonder why people are so hard on her stint with the Dead!

Things continue to heat up as this set continues. I especially like their speedy reading of “Mystery Train” and the bluegrass staple “Midnight Moonlight.” The band picks up the tempo and the energy goes through the roof, with Garcia running all over his fretboard while the band pushes him forward. Even compared to other JGB shows from around this time, it’s a good, energetic and fun set!

The two-CD set captures most of the show – the tape ran out near the end of “Midnight Moonlight,” which fades out – and if there was an encore after that song, it’s not here. The sound is good – much better than the concert tapes I have from this period – and generally, everything clicks. As mentioned above, I don’t really care for their version of “The Harder They Come,” but it’s interesting if only to show how wide-ranging Garcia’s taste was in 1978. After all, how many bands would tackle reggae, soul, gospel, bluegrass, 50s rock and a Dylan cover all in one night? Recommended, especially for Deadheads/Garcia fans!




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