Merl Saunders

Jerry Garcia Tribute Concert

Leadville, Colorado

August 9, 1996

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 1998, Volume 5, #1

Written by John Metzger

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On August 9, 1996 one year after the death of Jerry Garcia Merl Saunders performed a tribute show in Leadville, Colorado. The result is a warm and wonderful collection of songs and stories worthy of our departed friend.

Saunders describes meeting Garcia for the first time as well as their first recording session at Fantasy Records. This session produced a beautiful rendition of John Lennon's Imagine for Saunders' Heavy Turbulence album. After telling the story, Saunders began to play the song on his keyboard. Slowly, the entire Rainforest Band joins him, with Michael Hinton doing his best Garcia styling. The result would be a perfect tribute in itself, but as it turns out this was just the beginning.

Lovely Night for Dancing, a Bill Withers song that Garcia and Saunders performed during the Reconstruction tour, gets a blistering work-out as drummer Vince Littleton drives the song through the whirlwind created by Hinton, Saunders, and bassist Michael Warren. Save Mother Earth becomes a driving chant as Saunders literally assaults the song with a frenetic solo.

Dark Star is dedicated to Bill Graham, Tom Fogerty, and John Kahn. Saunders states that along with Garcia, these people left behind the music and us to enjoy it.

The legendary song begins calmly with a sweet interplay between Saunders and Hinton. As Littleton joins the fray, Hinton gently plays Taps before the group transforms the song into a monumental transcendental excursion. Riding the crest of Warren's bass pattern, the band launches into the theme, with Saunders and Hinton gliding on the pacific current. Hinton's guitar solo twists and turns, melting into a colorful cosmic cacophony of kaleidoscopic creation. It's a musical journey for the soul, that will take you to the far reaches of space before Warren brings the band back to the theme, and Saunders ravishes his keyboard with a thunderous flow as if exorcising some demon from within.

Saunders introduces My Funny Valentine by delivering a heart-felt story about Garcia's coma and subsequent relearning of this classic song. Saunders' performance is a beautiful, jazzy rendition that gently swirls before the band joins him. Hinton's solo is graceful and magnificent rising and falling in intensity as Littleton, Warren, and Saunders perfectly punctuate the song with rhythmic bursts of color and beauty.

If that doesn't convince you to seek out this tape, it also features outstanding versions of Sugaree, Mystery Train, and Fire on the Mountain. Saunders even tosses in a sweet melody from his latest disc Dance of the Pink Dolphins.

Perhaps the most touching part of this tribute is that the setlist is really no different from any other show Saunders has been performing recently. Any of these songs can pop up at any time and are often delivered with all of the passion and musicianship that are displayed here. The true tribute occurs every time Saunders takes the stage, keeping the spirit of Garcia alive with loving renditions of the songs they peformed together over their many years of collaboration.

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Set List

Tape 1, Side 1: Imagine, Lovely Night for Dancing, Save Mother Earth, The Harder They Come, Dark Star...

Tape 1, Side 2: ...Dark Star, Sugaree, Do I Move You, Fire

Tape 2, Side 1: My Funny Valentine, Mystery Train, Dance of the Pink Dolphins

Tape 2 Side 2: Fire on the Mountain, Mourning Moon, Bertha

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Copyright 1998 The Music Box