Steppin' Out with Melvin Seals
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2005, Volume 12, #3
Written by John Metzger
During the first portion of Melvin Sealsí career, he performed with the gospel-rock ensemble Gideon & Power, he was a member of a pit band on Broadway, and he recorded and toured with bluesman Elvin Bishop. His journey led him to the attention of Jerry Garcia, whom he met through Maria Muldaur and John Kahn, and the keyboard player quickly assimilated himself into what would become the final incarnation of the Grateful Dead guitaristís self-named side project. Even after Garcia died, Seals kept his spirit alive, and as a tribute to his departed friend, he resurrected the group under the simplified moniker of JGB. Now, over a quarter of a century after he first crossed paths with Garcia, Seals is about to embark upon the third phase of his vocational pursuit, one which will enable him to establish his own identity and finally emerge from behind the shadow of his former leader.
For the record, 2005 marks the 10th anniversary of Garciaís death, and it likely will serve as the final hurrah for JGB. A tour is planned for June, which will reunite the other surviving members of Garciaís group ó drummer David Kemper and singers Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones ó and this will coincide with the release of a reconfigured concert recording made on Halloween 1997, one which features a number of studio overdubs, including new vocal and guitar tracks that were provided, respectively, by Stu Allen and Dark Star Orchestraís John Kadlecik. Yet, even with JGB taking an extended hiatus, fans arenít likely to forget the ensemble. For years, Seals has lobbied for the release of a professionally filmed DVD of the Jerry Garcia Band performing in the early í90s at Mountain View, Californiaís Shoreline Amphitheater, and the package is tentatively slated for release this summer. Of course there also is a plethora of archival material being issued as part of the Pure Jerry series, the latest of which showcases a pair of shows from September 1989 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland.
With all of this attention, now appears to be as good a time as any for Seals to step out on his own ó not that he hasnít been thinking about it for awhile. Said Seals, "My good friend Merl Saunders told me I had to do my own songs and be known for what I do. He told me I couldnít do [JGB] all the time. At first, I was skeptical, but I really came to understand what he was saying. Before I leave here, I would like for someone to say, ĎI really like Melvinís style, his originality, and his writing ability.í"
His first project was to participate in a conglomerate called The Mix, a band that originally featured guitarist Jeff Pevar in addition to Kadlecik, drummer Greg Anton, and bass player Kevin Rosen. The ensemble was conceived by booking agent Tony Grafisi, and it evolved into an outlet for spotlighting new material. Said Seals, "I tried to write original stuff for the JGB. The fans danced to it, but they wanted to hear the old [tunes]."
Not surprisingly, as members of the most successful tribute band to ever form, Kadelcik and Rosen were facing similar problems. "John writes great songs, but he probably could never do one in Dark Star Orchestra," Seals chuckled.
"With that in mind, we all talked about doing some Garcia songs because, with the caliber of musicians involved in the group, fans were going to be looking for some of his material," he continued. "However, we wanted to focus on originals and make sure that everyone understood that this was not another Dark Star Orchestra or JGB. We wanted to play some other stuff."
Unable to commit to the groupís schedule, Pevar departed just prior to the bandís recording sessions last fall. Unfortunately, being a side project, The Mixís remaining members had similar scheduling conflicts, and the resulting album American Spring suffered accordingly. Said Seals regretfully, "Iím not making an excuse for the record, but I donít think we took the time that we should have [devoted to] it."
Indeed, what is perhaps most notable about American Spring, which was completed in six weeks, is its intriguing blend of genres. With each of The Mixís participants contributing a pair of tracks to the outing, the collectionís songs run the gamut from Sealsí slow-burning blues (Me & the Devil) to Kadlecikís driving, Garcia-esque rock (Whatís Become of Mary) to Antonís funky groove (The Business). Even so, much of American Spring feels tentative, and although it features original compositions that provide the individual songwriters with an opportunity to test the waters, it doesnít really move any of them far beyond the scope of their more familiar projects. In essence, it offers a blend between the Grateful Dead and JGB, a notion that is only enhanced by Kadlecikís uncanny ability to play the role of Garcia. Said Seals, "I find a lot of guitar players who have studied Jerry and who have spent some time trying to play like Jerry. A lot of guys do get some licks, they do get some runs, they get certain similarities, but none of them really understands it. I find John to be the closest that Iíve heard who actually plays ĎJerry.í"
"A lot of guitar players make a mistake," Seals explained. "They spend so much time doing the scale runs that Jerry would do ó running up the scales and hitting certain melodic notes ó but what they donít get is that Jerry also played rhythm. When I did solos or when other things happened, Jerry would come off that and play rhythm. Most guitar players, I find, who have a "Jerry" soloing style canít play rhythm at all. They just absolutely forget about the rhythm."
"Even certain types of mistakes that Jerry would make," he added, "John can do those too ó naturally. The reason I say he does it naturally is that when I hear him play a [new] song ó for instance, on our record ó he still has the "Jerry" style. He couldnít study Jerryís licks on the song because Jerry didnít play it, and thatís how you know itís inside him."
Sealsí other recently released outing is Melting Pot, a collection of 11 tracks that were written and recorded by the keyboard player over the course of the past decade. Fusing bits of jazz, blues, soul, rock, gospel, country, and bluegrass ó all of which is embraced by a pop-oriented style of production ó the album bestows a more diverse examination of his interests and his abilities. Because of this, it is, by far, a much riskier proposition. Said Seals, "Iím scared to death because this is my first solo record. I donít know how it is going to be perceived."
Part of Sealsí hesitation is that Melting Pot initially wasnít intended to be made available commercially. "This was not recorded for me, he explained. "The purpose was to write some songs to submit to other artists. For example, Iím Not Going to Cry was actually written with Bonnie Raitt in mind. When we had 10 or 11 songs, my management and label felt that they were good and that we should put [an album] out."
"At first, I wasnít sure how we would do this," Seals continued. "I wonít go out and perform these songs. Some of them I can do, but others I probably never could perform [in concert] because they just arenít me."
"Knowing what I do ó playing the organ, a jam band style rocker," Seals added anxiously, "When people hear these slick, commercial songs, I donít know what thatís going to do to me."
While Melting Pot may be a flawed affair, Seals neednít worry. After all, it is, without question, the strongest of his two recent endeavors. True, the album is a bit polished, especially in comparison to the tracks on American Spring, but it certainly isnít any glossier than the Jerry Garcia Bandís 1982 studio outing Run for the Roses. In fact, there are some similarities between these two recordings, both in terms of their ambience and their scope, and although the aura of Garcia isnít nearly as overt on Melting Pot, the late guitaristís spirit certainly can be felt throughout its multi-faceted terrain. In fact, two tunes ó the joyous Celebrate and the touching When You Love Someone ó were written with Garcia in mind. The latter song originally was titled Losing a Friend, and its intended lyrics featured a line that read: "Losing a friend/Is like losing a brother/There can never be a replacement/There can never be another." However, while sitting in his car with the instrumental track playing on his stereo, Seals was approached by a woman who told him how much she enjoyed what she had overheard. It made him reconsider his approach, and he decided to just leave it be.
As for Celebrate, Seals wrote it about the fans as well as Garcia. "People werenít really going to concerts. A few years ago, at the High Sierra Music Festival, I was looking at String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, STS9, and some of the other bands who were on the bill, and I saw the fans jumping up and down. The audience was full of tie-dyes, and the vendors were there. It was the same thing I used to see with Garcia. I felt they had overcome the storm. So I wrote, ĎIím happy that we weathered the storm/And tonight weíll celebrate/Iím happy that weíre all here together/íCause itís never too late/To celebrate.í"
Still, Seals reserves his greatest enthusiasm for Rhythm Factory, a group that has been a favorite of the San Francisco Bay-area music scene for some time, but has yet to release an album. Where The Mix is beholden to a variety of scheduling issues, and the Melting Pot project features material that will prove to be difficult to replicate with any of Sealsí current ensembles, Rhythm Factory is a natural extension of what he loves to do. "Itís organ-driven funk and jam band stuff," he explained. "There are some vocals, but itís more [along the lines of] innovative and dance-able instrumentals. Itís something people would expect."
"Rhythm Factory would be the band ó as a style of record," he concluded, "that I would want to represent me. Itís where I want to be."
The Mix's American Spring is available from Barmes & Noble.
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Melvin Seals' Melting Pot is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box