Jerry Garcia Band
Pure Jerry: Theatre 1839
[July 29-30, 1977]
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2004, Volume 11, #10
Written by John Metzger
Amazingly, it’s been eleven years since the Grateful Dead launched its esteemed Dick’s Picks collection of concert recordings — an astounding suite of historical nuggets, to be sure — but in that time, many also have been wondering when a similar batch of Jerry Garcia’s solo performances would follow suit. Enter the first installment of Pure Jerry, a three-disc package that culls material from a pair of the legendary guitarist’s Bay Area shows in the Summer of 1977, with a line-up that featured vocalist Donna Godchaux, bass player John Kahn, keyboard player Keith Godchaux, and drummer Ron Tutt. Never one to rest on his laurels, Garcia was busy throughout his career, tirelessly toiling to re-imagine his own compositions as well as those of countless others. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t; but one thing is certain: he was always searching for a fresh and exciting perspective that gratified his own artistic sagacity as much as it pleased the adventurous spirits of his fans.
Without question, 1977 was a terrific year for Garcia. Not only was the Grateful Dead once again firing on all cylinders, rejuvenated by a wealth of new material, and entirely reconnected after its lengthy hiatus, but Garcia’s solo project also had coalesced considerably around the 18-month existence of its then-current line-up. Running through a dizzying array of cover songs that ranged from Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come to Irving Berlin’s Russian Lullaby and from Charles Johnson’s My Sisters and Brothers to the Sun Studios’ staple Mystery Train, the ensemble instinctively dissolved the boundaries that still tend to divide such disparate works, thereby making what should be a jumbled mess feel more like a cohesive whole. Stretching each tune to its limit — most notably, a blissful, nearly 30-minute rendition of Don’t Let Go — the group turned the music inside-out, reconstructing the arrangements with its own uniquely imaginative and free-spirited vision.
Of course, the big difference between the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band was that where the former typically utilized its sets to fuse songs together as a means of sculpting an organically intertwined whole, the latter delivered each selection as its own self-contained entity. As a result, the Jerry Garcia Band’s concerts tended to shamble rather than strut — albeit with the merrily charming ebb and flow of a jazz ensemble, as opposed to the utterly clumsy movements of a simple bar band. Yet, even this minor critique quickly fades from view when pressed with the breezy, high-flying ambience that graced Bob Marley’s Stir It Up, the shimmering funk-groove lent to Smokey Robinson’s I Second that Emotion, or the ferocious tenacity with which the band imparted Hank Ballard’s Tore Up over You.
For certain, the bright, clean, crisp, and soulful sound of Garcia’s guitar sang proudly throughout the Theatre 1839 concerts, and no matter how far the relaxed grooves concocted by his backing band drifted out of focus, it was he who consistently put them back on target and guided them forward with his infectiously incendiary intensity. As he and pianist Keith Godchaux took turns twisting and turning the melodies — more often than not with a lighter-than-air touch that was simply divine — Kahn’s bass rumbled beneath the surface with a punctuated efficacy while Tutt steadfastly kept time with the understated precision of an atomic clock. Indeed, the first edition of Pure Jerry is a loose, inspired, fun-filled endeavor, and although it’s far from perfect, it also sounds just right, particularly whenever the collective takes flight on a mind-blowing journey across the heavens. ½
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box