Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders Band
Pure Jerry 4: Keystone Berkeley
[September 1, 1974]
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2005, Volume 12, #2
Written by John Metzger
In the early-to-mid-í70s, whenever the Grateful Dead wasnít on tour, Jerry Garciaís restless muse frequently led him to one of two places: his acoustic-oriented, folk- and bluegrass-tinged excursions with David Grisman, and his electric, jazz- and soul-tinted explorations with Merl Saunders. Although these disparate locales stood in polar opposition to one another, they also touched upon the fringes of his primary outfitís tangled tapestry of styles, allowing the guitarist to take a vacation from his day job, while continuing to develop new theories and ideas to further improve its endeavors. Of course, the Grateful Deadís ever-changing stylistic jumble already has been documented quite extensively through a variety of concert recordings ó not the least of which is the masterful, 34-volume (and counting) Dickís Picks collection ó but until recently, Garciaís solo enterprises were known only to the tape collectors among his most diehard fans. Yet, if 2004 saw the floodgates of the guitaristís vast archive of solo material swing open, 2005 finds its keepers getting serious about preserving his legacy. Quietly released just prior to Christmas, the fourth installment of the Pure Jerry series contains a complete show from Garciaís stint with the Merl Saunders Band, and not only is it by far the finest edition of the set, but it also establishes a nearly insurmountable precedent for the future. Recorded on September 1, 1974 at their regular Bay Area haunt of Keystone Berkeley, the three-disc collection magically captures the duo of Garcia and Saunders along with bass player John Kahn, drummer Paul Humphrey, saxophonist Martin Fierro, and an unidentified trumpeter as they deliver an epic
Granted, the set lists employed by any of the Garcia-Saunders projects didnít vary tremendously from one show to the next, and each was peppered with an organic blend of Bob Dylan-penned, Motown-germinated, jazz, blues, funk, reggae, and rock selections. Indeed, this particular 19-song event found the band playfully making a mishmash of these styles while rummaging through standards such as Dylanís Tough Mama, Lightniní Hopkinsí Someday Baby, Jimmy Cliffís The Harder They Come, Antonio Carlos Jobimís Favela, and a handful of original compositions, such as Saundersí Soul Roach and Fierroís La La. Much like the groupís countless other performances, each song was ripped from its moorings only to be stretched and reshaped by the collective into something fresh, exciting, and new. Not surprisingly, the end result of such improvisational mayhem could be a hit-and-miss affair, but for whatever reason, September 1, 1974 yielded a truly awesome, mind-blowing experience, one that rivaled the Grateful Deadís own astonishing sojourns.
While nearly a year earlier the Grateful Dead had made an attempt to tour with a horn section, the resulting shows were wildly erratic affairs, and the concept quickly was abandoned. Still, Miles Davisí jazz-fusion experiments increasingly were fueling the bandís repertoire, and so too did they weigh quite heavily upon Garcia and Saundersí own musical ruminations. During the Keystone Berkeley show, this, of course, is most noticeable on instrumental outings such as the molten mayhem of La La and the probing, improvisational fury of Keystone Jam, but even songs like the sweetly supernal Sitting in Limbo and the hard-driving Mystery Train featured taut rhythms around which the soloists darted, danced, and swayed. Elsewhere, the ensemble mutated Roadrunner into a blistering, funk-fueled workout; unearthed the gospel core of Dylanís Going, Going, Gone and utilized it to construct a radiant R&B masterpiece; slipped into Philly soul for a brief romp through People Make the World Go Round ó and, yes, thatís the same song that propelled The Stylistics into public purview ó and settled comfortably into the roots-rock strains of Robbie Robertsonís The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. In essence, the fourth chapter in the Pure Jerry series amounts to being a whirlwind tour de force that far and away surpasses not only the entirety of Jerry Garciaís solo canon, but also many of the Grateful Deadís own releases.
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box