The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1: Legion of Mary
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2005, Volume 12, #8
Written by John Metzger
The very concept behind the latest series of archival recordings from Jerry Garciaís solo career is apt to have at least a few of the late guitaristís fans up in arms. After all, there are those who feel that if one song from a particular concert is worthy of being released, then the entire show ought to be put forth into the publicís purview, if only for the sake of historical accuracy. The problem, however, is that this isnít always technically feasible nor is it necessarily the most commercially viable strategy. In fact, if the intent is to continue to extend the reach of Garciaís extraordinary legacy, then, perhaps, in order to achieve the widest range of appeal, only the finest and most enlightening material ought to be pieced together and issued ó at least on those offerings designed for mass consumption. If done properly, itís possible for the final product to retain a sense of continuity that mirrors the seamless ebb and flow of an individual performance, and when that happens, the result can be positively transcendent.
This vision is the motivating factor that drives The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1: Legion of Mary, which culls 14 tracks from seven different concerts and spreads them over the course of two discs, the sum total of which equates to nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes of pure bliss. Indeed, of all of Garciaís countless side projects, his various collaborations with keyboard player Merl Saunders arguably were the most adventurous. Coming in the wake of last fallís edition of the Pure Jerry series, which focused upon a monumental show held in September 1974 at Keystone Berkeley, perhaps this era of his career will finally get its due. Although the group occasionally experimented with original compositions ó Saunders and saxophonist Martin Fierro both contributed to its repertoire ó the bulk of its canon was drawn from across a broad spectrum of music history. It wasnít unusual for songs rooted in the blues (Hank Ballardís Tore Up Over You) to stand next to Motown classics (Smokey Robinsonís I Second That Emotion), folk tunes (Norman Blakeís Last Train from Poor Valley), and early rock Ďní roll chestnuts (Chuck Berryís Let It Rock).
Nevertheless, The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1: Legion of Mary isnít well-suited to everyoneís tastes. For starters, there are some strange recording anomalies ó most notably, several unplanned bursts of feedback that occasionally pierce the otherwise superb performance. In addition, those with attention-deficit disorder might struggle with the fact that all but three of the selections on the set push ó some would say meander ó far beyond the 10-minute mark. Thereís also the unfortunate decision by Fierro to let loose a flurry of brief, but jarringly discordant squawks in the midst of one of I Second That Emotionís mind-bending jams ó though this is a rare example of a bad artistic decision. Regardless, those seeking concision and absolute perfection arenít going to find it here. The reason for this, of course, is that, at its heart, Garcia & Saunders, which later adopted the name Legion of Mary, was a wild and wooly bar band crossed with an audacious jazz-fusion outfit. Consequently, each tune it touched blossomed into an open-ended jam session in which the musicians ó Garcia, Saunders, Fierro, bass player John Kahn, and drummer Ron Tutt ó carried on a wordless conversation that shaped and reshaped the material at hand. Like a well-oiled machine, the collective comfortably slid into the swinging strains of Jesse Winchesterís Thatís the Touch I Like as well as the deep, funk-driven groove of Since I Lost My Baby, another of Legion of Maryís delightfully twisted interpretations of a Robinson-penned song. Just as easily, however, it ventured skyward through the sunshine-dappled lilt of Allen Toussaintís Iíll Take a Melody, settled into the smoldering blues of Neighbor, Neighbor, and embraced the joyous glee of the Holland/Dozier/Holland-crafted gem How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You. The pinnacle of The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1: Legion of Mary, however, comes when the ensemble blows apart Ray Charlesí Talkiní íBout You and transforms it into a hip-shaking tour-de-force that hints at Bobby "Blue" Blandís frenetic hit Turn on Your Lovelight. Itís here that the collective delivers its material with such a supercharged and vibrant sense of urgency that it will make fans out of the most improvisation-averse within the general populace. Simply put, this track is the epitome of Legion of Mary; itís quintessential Garcia; and it beautifully illustrates precisely how powerful music can be.
Of Further Interest...
The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1: Legion of Mary is available
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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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