The 11th volume of the JGB live archive showcases a highlight from the Grateful Dead icon’s final years
The Jerry Garcia Band always seemed a bit like an alternate universe version of The Grateful Dead — one where Jerry’s genius strode a similar path, but interacted with another batch of bandmates in an entirely different way.
From 1975 until his death 20 years later, Garcia logged more time with the JGB than he did on anything besides Dead tours. So it’s not surprising for the ups and downs of the two ensembles to mirror each other. The party line is that the last couple of years of Garcia’s life were basically a downward slide as his drug and health problems worsened, and his once prodigious musical gifts declined right in line with the rest of his life.
But peeking in on Garcia Live Volume 11, a November 11, 1993 Garcia Band show from a tour sandwiched between the Dead’s September and December sprints that year will immediately put the lie to that oversimplified idea. As was the case with the September Dead shows at the Boston Garden that preceded this JGB run, Jerry was on fire when he hit Rhode Island’s Providence Civic Center with bassist John Kahn, organist Melvin Seals, drummer David Kemper, and backup singers Jaclyn LaBranch and Gloria Jones.
However, beyond gauging Garcia’s relative energy level, comparisons between the Dead and the JGB are largely futile. While they had a few of the same songs in their repertoire, Garcia related to the two bands as entirely discrete entities, and he simply didn’t approach music the same way with the Garcia Band as he did with The Grateful Dead.
The Dead was a band where Jerry was surrounded by improv-minded seekers like himself, and the constant push-and-pull that dynamic created was the essence of the band’s sound — a unique strain of psychedelic jazz/rock/folk/country where the ground was constantly shifting. As its name implies, the Jerry Garcia Band was all about framing Garcia as the primary source of inspiration and invention. Instead of bouncing back and forth against Jerry’s guitar lines a playful pair of felines with a big, bright ball of yarn like the Dead’s rhythm section, Kahn and Kemper functioned in a much more conventional way, offering anchor, propulsion, and support while maintaining a consistent backbeat.
And while Seals gets his licks in now and again (check out his spotlight moment on “The Way You Do the Things You Do”), he largely occupies himself with providing a constantly shifting flow of textures and colors to accompany Jerry’s solos. His gospel-schooled swoops and surges are always arrestingly dynamic but he’s not out to oust the silver-haired sultan from the driver’s seat.
As for the boss man himself, though Garcia had less than two years to live and was, by most accounts, slowly falling apart by the time his band hit the Civic Center on the evening in question he was obviously experiencing some kind of Indian Summer. His voice is full of energy and expressiveness, whether he’s testifying soulfully on a slow-burning version of Van Morrison’s “He Ain’t Give You None” or coming across with a tender, nuanced croon on his buddy Bob Dylan’s ruminative “Simple Twist of Fate.”
AUDIO: Jerry Garcia Band “He Ain’t Give You None” Live in Providence
As for Garcia’s guitar — which, at the end of the day, is what put asses in the seats — there’s no shortage of evidence here to support the notion that even at this late date, Jerry was still rock’s greatest six-string stylist. The gently lyrical lines on “Mission in the Rain,” the overdriven rock ‘n’ roll flame bursts of “Deal,” the fat, funky syncopation of “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox” — they all stand to show that the troubled guitar czar was perched solidly atop his game.
While Seals largely ceded the spotlight to the man whose name was on the marquee, with no rhythm guitarist in the picture the organist had a lot more elbow room than any Dead keyboardist ever did. And he makes grand use of that space, egging Jerry on when he’s building momentum, and laying out lush pillows underneath the guitar hero’s more reflective moments. By this point, Seals had been Garcia’s foil for 13 years, and the two had a musical relationship that nearly rivaled Jerry’s dynamic with his Dead bandmates. And from the stately start of opening cut “Cats Under the Stars” to the rave-up ending of album-closer “Midnight Moonlight,” he operates like his hands are hanging at the end of a pair of extra limbs fortuitously sprouted from Garcia’s torso.
Naturally, none of this is to suggest that history needs re-writing. There’s no denying that Garcia’s inspiration was ground down to a nub during his last days onstage. Footage from his final Dead shows in ’95 can be painful to watch. But the 11th volume in this series of JGB concerts is an important reminder that even the Captain’s later phase encompassed some startlingly electric moments.
VIDEO: JGB perform “Dear Prudence” > “When The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game”