Ladder to the Stars: Garcia Plays Dylan
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2005, Volume 12, #11
Written by John Metzger
Although they were separated in age by a mere 26 months, Jerry Garcia still was forging an identity among San Franciscoís folk music purveyors when Bob Dylan leapt onto the national stage. Indeed, by the time that the Grateful Dead began to develop its own distinctive voice on 1968ís Anthem of the Sun, Dylan not only had issued a slew of classic albums, but he also, on more than one occasion, significantly had altered the trajectory of folk and rock history. Itís no surprise, then, that initially, the admiration that Garcia had for Dylan was unrequited, and as was demonstrated by the rendition of Itís All Over Now, Baby Blue on the Dennis McNally-compiled prequel Birth of the Dead, the Grateful Dead was infatuated with Dylan long before it even had established its own distinctive persona. Over time, of course, Dylan came to hold the Grateful Dead in equally high esteem, and once he shared the stage with Garcia at a 1980 concert in San Francisco, their futures fully became intertwined.
Garcia Plays Dylan follows in the wake of 2002ís composite Postcards of the Hanging, but where the latter set emphasized the Grateful Deadís interpretations of Dylanís compositions, the new collection culls material primarily from Garciaís solo repertoire. No matter: The results are largely the same since each outing, in its own way, beautifully highlights the indelible and wholly personal stamp that Garcia placed upon Dylanís work ó be it the gentle lyricism in which he thrived on Forever Young; the bittersweet aura he gave to She Belongs to Me; or the dark, moody ambience he explored during SeŮor (Tales of Yankee Power).
Nevertheless, Garcia Plays Dylan is far more challenging than its predecessor, and as a result, it isnít nearly as accessible a collection. For starters, there is little variance to the pacing of its contents, and much of the 15-track endeavor is devoted to slow- to mid-tempo selections that likely will blur together within the minds of those not paying tremendously close attention. Yet, taken out of context, each tune reveals itself to be a magnificent gem that showcases different aspects of Garciaís staggering skills as both a guitarist and a vocalist. Yes, his ominous rendition of The Wicked Messenger, which plodded along with a viscous air of deliberation that was more befitting of Mountain than any of his own projects, was barely recognizable as the composition that Dylan had recorded for John Wesley Harding. Yet, the hellfire that Garcia unleashed with his startling, angst-filled guitar solos made it downright riveting. Likewise, Knockiní on Heavenís Door began in an unassumingly sleepy fashion, but by its conclusion, it had blossomed into an affecting anthem that pitted its weary intonations against the radiant salvation of its gospel-blues core. Elsewhere, Dylanís bilious charges on Positively 4th Street were supplanted with rueful rumination and mourning; a lazy stroll through When I Paint My Masterpiece gave way to an orgiastic flurry of guitar; Visions of Johanna was devoid of extensive soloing, and the subtlety of its arrangement chillingly framed Garciaís haunted, lyrical delivery; the somber, nearly claustrophobic strains of I Shall Be Released burst with the fiery force of spiritual transcendence; and within its gentle, country-tinged lilt, Simple Twist of Fate bore hints of Eric Claptonís Okie-derived charm. For certain, Garcia never tackled Dylanís songs in a straightforward fashion, and he subsequently always managed to find a fresh perspective from which to perform the material, which is precisely why Garcia Plays Dylan is such an insightful venture into the minds of both artists.
Ladder to the Stars: Garcia Plays Dylan is available from CD Universe.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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