Jerry Garcia Band
Don't Let Go
First Appeared at The Music Box, April 2001, Volume 8, #4
Written by John Metzger
Like most truly creative people, Jerry Garcia was a restless soul, who constantly sought to discover something new and different. Whether it was his paintings and drawings or his many stylistically varied musical collaborations, Garcia always seemed to be in a constant mode of exploration. One of his primary outlets outside the Grateful Dead was the aptly named Jerry Garcia Band (JGB), but though the name remained the same for twenty years, its line-up went through a number of configurations with the only staples being Garcia and bassist John Kahn. An early incarnation of this group — which also featured drummer Ron Tutt along with the Grateful Dead's Keith and Donna Godchaux on keyboards and vocals, respectively — is the subject of the long overdue and highly anticipated Don't Let Go.
Unfortunately, Don't Let Go is not the definitive, perfect set from JGB, though Deadheads undoubtedly will find the album — which was compiled from a Bay Area concert held on May 21, 1976 — to be a must-have collection. Likewise, the uninitiated who might be open to this sort of thing certainly will find the spark of brilliance that shines through many of the tracks and hides just beneath the surface on several others. Those most passive of Deadheads and the just faintly curious, however, might want to wait for something a little less flawed.
Make no mistake: There's very little that Garcia did that was anything less than excellent, and these missteps amount almost entirely to the brutal vocals and flubbed guitar passages that plagued him a little too often in the '80s and '90s. Musically speaking, Don't Let Go is full of inspiration that far outweighs many of those efforts. The problem here is partially due to the show's slow start — both Sugaree and They Love Each Other seem to barely stay in step, threatening at any moment to collapse upon themselves. Also at fault is Donna Godchaux's on-again, off-again vocal performance. At her best, she has one of the most angelic and pleasing voices on the planet, but at her worst, Godchaux creeps off-key to the point of becoming just a little bit grating.
Looking past these blemishes, however, there were many peak experiences scattered throughout the concert. First and foremost were Garcia's soaring guitar solos. With each note, he seemed to climb higher and higher, as if he was trying to touch the unreachable heavens — never quite getting close enough to grasp them, but pushing further towards them with each outburst. Under his feet stood the steadfast rhythmic murmur of Kahn's bass and Tutt's percussion, providing a sturdy anchor for his flights of fancy. Knockin' on Heaven's Door was slow and deliberate in its pacing, building to glorious crescendos during the instrumental breaks and falling to mere whispers during the passage of its verses. Yet, it was the tracks that formed a bookend around the second set that were the absolute highlights of the show. Kicking things off was a tremendously forceful Don't Let Go — which was consistently one of the most transcendent tunes in JGB's repertoire. There was something about this song that always seemed to ignite Garcia and his band, and the version that is presented as the title track for this release was no exception. Garcia's vocals were particularly soulful, and his guitar picking led the band down a winding pathway of surreal splendor. The cobwebs that had clung tightly to the group during the opening set causing an uneasy and hesitant uncertainty were gone — staying away for the bulk of the second act — and the band's renewed confidence allowed it to fully plunder the depths of the song. Similarly, the concluding Lonesome and a Long Way from Home rallied the musicians into a lock-step rhythmic pattern that served as a launching pad for the ensemble. Seamlessly shifting gears, the group mutated from a rambunctious blues-rock groove into what is unquestionably a Fire on the Mountain jam and back again. It's on these songs that JGB showcased their skill as musicians, being on par with that of their fearless leader and his long-running mainstay the Grateful Dead. It's here that they demonstrate the right way to jam — listening to one another, moving as a single-minded, shape-shifting entity that paints from a full palette of decorative color. Garcia simply wouldn't have it any other way.
Don't Let Go is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box