Merl Saunders - Blues from the Rainforest

Merl Saunders / Jerry Garcia
Blues from the Rainforest

(Whirlwind/Sumertone)

First Appeared at The Music Box, November 2000, Volume 7, #11

Written by John Metzger

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In 1990, Merl Saunders reintroduced himself to legions of Deadheads with the release of a stunningly beautiful new age album titled Blues from the Rainforest. Though Saunders' career now spans more than thirty years, this album remains his true masterpiece. It helped, of course, that Saunders once again collaborated with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia on four of the album's six tracks, and together, they tapped into the deep-rooted spiritual connection among mankind, music, and nature.

Sad to say, Blues from the Rainforest has been out of print and difficult to find for quite some time, though it remains available through Saunders' own web site. Nevertheless, it deserves wider distribution. From the haunted beauty of the title track, to the radiant strains of Sunrise over Haleakala to the playful Dance of the Fireflies the album remains as emotionally moving today as it was upon its initial release.

Fortunately, Whirlwind Media has had the wisdom to re-release Blues from the Rainforest albeit in DVD format. The package includes the entire album on a special audio track, and this is the real reason to pick up the DVD. The rest of the material is enjoyable, but non-essential.

Of this, there is a 25-minute television program taken from a promotional appearance by Saunders on San Francisco After Dark. It's the usual interview interspersed with concert footage that gives a general overview into the making of the album. Faring better, is the 24-minute documentary titled Rediscovering the Amazon, which highlights Saunders' visit to South America a few years following the release of his album. This is actually quite an interesting tale that highlights the biodiversity of the area, the cultures of the Amazon's people, and some of the problems the rainforest is facing.

Rounding out the DVD is the video for the title track as well as an hour-long excerpt from Saunders' September 24, 1990 performance at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The former is far too short, obviously created for the sole purpose of marketing the album to commerical video music programs. Nevertheless, it's tastefully done and enjoyable to watch. On the latter, the sound quality and video picture are reasonable enough, though clearly they were made prior to the popularity of digital technology. Nevertheless, the performance is a pretty accurate depiction of a Merl Saunders concert.

Backing Saunders is an early rendition of his Rainforest Band, which included guitarist Steve Kimock, who later went on to perform with Zero, Phil Lesh & Friends, and The Other Ones. Kimock's fluid, Garcia-like leads fit in perfectly with Saunders on selections like the funky blues of High Heel Sneakers and the prog-rock jazz of Merl's Tune.

Not surprisingly, however, the highlights were the two newer tracks from the Blues from the Rainforest album. On Dance of the Fireflies, Muruga embarked on a quiet percussive groove, which magically intermingled with Saunders' lightly flickering keyboards and the soothing textures of Steve Kindler's violin. Similarly, Afro Pearl Blue's gentle meditative mantra drifted amidst a hazy swirl of synthesizer and vocals.

Throughout the '90s, Saunders has released a solid stream of recordings, though only one (Fiesta Amazonica) really captures the same magic exuded by the Blues from the Rainforest project. Neither album is the typical fare to which most Deadheads readily cling, but both are such beautiful works of art that they warrant a space on the shelf, right next to their Grateful Dead CDs.

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Blues from the Rainforest (CD) - starstarstarstar

Blues from the Rainforest (DVD) - starstarstar

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Blues from the Rainforest is available on DVD from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Ratings

1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!

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Copyright 2000 The Music Box