30 years ago: The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band offers a rustic alternative to the Dead
Jerry Garcia’s affinity for traditional folk music and archetypical bluegrass is well documented.
Any Deadhead worth his or her tie dye and patchouli knows that prior to founding the Warlocks, the band that would eventually morph into the Grateful Dead, a teenage Garcia played in any number of budding traditional bands, most famously Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, a group that revered its roots and had little interest in anything resembling a modern accoutrement. Garcia was taken with the banjo, an instrument that was the source of his early fascination, before opting for guitar. In retrospect, that fascination seemed strangely ironic, especially for a man who would later earn the nickname Captain Trips, thanks to his pioneering sojourns into psychedelic suggestion and music that was then — and in some ways still is — vastly ahead of its time.
Nevertheless, Garcia frequently returned to his roots several times over the course of his three decade career with the Dead and its various disciples. His side trips with New Riders of the Purple Sage and Old and In the Way affirmed the fact that his affection for music of a vintage variety remained an ongoing influence even later in life. It was a devotion he took several steps further when, for a lark, he began playing some occasional gigs with the self-described Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, an ad hoc group of friends and associates that included the New Riders‘ David Nelson on guitar and vocals; bassist John Kahn, a veteran of several of Garcia’s solo bands; fiddler Kenny Kosek; drummer David Kemper; and mandolin and dobro player Sandy Rothman, with whom Garcia had played in a Bay Area band called The Black Mountain Boys. They drew their live sets from a modest repertoire, mostly seminal standards of traditional origins, but they managed to perform with a zest and zeal that left little doubt as to their eagerness and enthusiasm.
The JGAB had its heyday throughout 1987 and 1988 when they played a select number of gigs in the Bay Area as well as a two week run at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater on Broadway. In 1988, Almost Acoustic, one of two live recordings they made emerged, a collection that included such familiar fare as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Jimmie Rogers’s “Blue Yodel #9,” Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues,” and “Ripple,” the indelible Garcia-Hunter composition that offered evidence of Garcia’s folkish intents with the classic album American Beauty. Recorded at San Francisco’s Wiltern and Warfield Theatres in November and December 1987, Almost Acoustic was released the year after and then rereleased this past spring for 2018‘s initial Record Store Day. Now widely available, it’s a treat to listen to, especially considering the fact that it preceded the advent of nu-grass, jam grass and the archival Americana sound that gained such prominence over the the past 20 years.
Indeed, anyone that would dare dismiss this as simply a dalliance of some sort misses the point entirely. Garcia was a genuine devotee who took pride in remaining true to tradition and fostering a sound that later spawned a critical arc of Americana music. Now, some 40 years on, it’s more essential than ever.