Jerry Garcia Band
Pure Jerry 2: Lunt-Fontanne, New York City
[October 31, 1987
Pure Jerry 3: Lunt-Fontanne
New York City, The Best of the Rest
[October 15-30, 1987]
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2004, Volume 11, #12
Written by John Metzger
Despite his firm commitment to electric music, Jerry Garcia never lost sight of his roots, and in 1987 he formed a short-lived but potent acoustic ensemble in order to perform at a special two-week engagement on Broadway as well as at a smattering of venues in California. Each show began with an hour-long acoustic set that dug deep into the songbook of America, and it ended with a blast of equally eclectic electric material. Taken in total, these concerts offered a sterling overview of Garcia’s disparate interests and featured some of the finest moments of his solo career. Therefore, it is entirely to be expected that the new, archival series titled Pure Jerry eventually would turn its attention to these historic events, and this is precisely the subject matter of its simultaneously released second and third installments. Featuring seven discs worth of music — a four-album collection is devoted to the entirety of the ensemble’s matinee and evening shows at New York City’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Halloween, while the other three CDs are bundled into a parcel that compiles the highlights from the rest of the concerts at the esteemed venue — this is certainly an extensive and rather extraordinary document.
Which of these packages is the better value is undeniably debatable, and the answer to that question undoubtedly will depend upon one’s own unique perspective. Performance wise, The Best of the Rest wins, however slightly — given its title, how could it not? — and yet, there also is something to be said for the continuity and cohesion of the impressive Halloween suite’s two acoustic and two electric sets. In other words, the latter is a warts-and-all endeavor that paints a tremendously vivid picture, while the former successfully portrays numerous flawless moments from the 13-night engagement without duplicating the efforts of its companion. More importantly, however, neither outing falters.
In truth, there are many highlights scattered among the two distinct albums culled from the Lunt-Fontanne shows, and one could make the case that nearly every selection is memorable and important. Essentially, the best manner in which to obtain the purest portrait of this astounding string of concerts is to view the collections in total. Whether slicing through Short Life of Trouble’s sprightly, bluegrass-colored bounce; navigating the dark corners of Drifting Too Far from the Shore; searching for the light in Troubled in Mind; soliciting salvation on Swing Low Sweet Chariot; or offering the sweet benediction of Ripple, the manner in which Garcia and his acoustic-based entourage merged rustic folk with earthy grooves effectively circled the wagons for a trip across the dusty back-roads of America. Further spotlighting the ensemble’s exquisite vocal harmonies as well as the almost giddy delight of the musicians is a trio of songs (Ashes of Love, Poison Love, and I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail) plucked from the rehearsal sessions and appended to The Best of the Rest’s acoustic-oriented compilation.
Similarly, the electric ensemble — which swapped mandolinist Sandy Rothman, fiddler Kenny Kosek, and guitarist David Nelson for keyboard player Melvin Seals, drummer David Kemper, and vocalists Gloria Jones and Jacklyn LaBranch — projected a potent synthesis of styles, albeit one with an entirely different perspective of music history. Instead of touching upon a variety of old-time sounds, the fully amplified unit traversed an even broader terrain by adding a heavy dose of driving rock and soul-infused R&B to its blend of folk, bluegrass, and blues. As a result, the Motown classic How Sweet It Is was transformed into an attention-grabbing call-to-arms; Chuck Berry’s Let It Rock exploded in a blazing fireball of guitar and organ; Charles Johnson’s My Sisters & Brothers was blissful and rapturous; The Beatles’ Dear Prudence embodied a radiant, sunbeam-drenched stroll down that familiar long and winding road; and Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London was delivered with an edgy playfulness. Elsewhere, Garcia’s passionate vocals embalmed a gospel-inspired rendition of Van Morrison’s Crazy Love with an irresistible charm, and his soaring guitar solo propelled Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come to lofty heights. Of course, there arguably wasn’t anyone who was better than Garcia — other than The Byrds and his bandmates in the Grateful Dead — at interpreting the songs of Bob Dylan, and a sizeable portion of the Lunt-Fontanne compilations provides a stunning examination of the link between these two artists. I Shall Be Released, All Along the Watchtower, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Simple Twist of Fate, Tangled Up in Blue, Forever Young, and a pair of renditions of (When I Paint My) Masterpiece — one of which was sung by special guest Bob Weir — were all refreshingly remade as elongated, exploratory anthems.
Still, there is one problem that lingers throughout both of the Lunt-Fontanne collections, though it has nothing to do with the performances. Simply put, the sound quality is noticeably less than perfect, and although the deficiency quietly settles into the background, it never manages to disappear completely. After years of astoundingly pristine recordings issued under the Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks moniker, it’s difficult not to be taken aback by the sometimes murky, sometimes vacuous ambience contained on these audience-heavy, aural snapshots. Consequently, this factor is going to test the resolve of all but the most diehard fans, but those with a little patience surely will discover a wealth of treasures that are uniquely rewarding and full of the rich textures that typically fed Garcia’s insatiable muse.
Lunt-Fontanne, New York City, October 31, 1987 —
The Best of the Rest — October 15–30, 1987 —
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box