Kronomyth 1.0: WHEEL GOOD. If you enjoy the Garcia/Hunter compositions from this period, you’re in for a wheel treat. His first album (casually called The Wheel to distinguish it from his other eponymous album) features a handful of classic songs that have comfortably insinuated themselves into the Deadshow over the years: “Deal,” “Loser,” “Sugaree,” “To Lay Me Down,” “Bird Song.” Together with the complete contents of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they rank with some of the best songs to come from the Dead. Despite its strong resemblance to the Dead, this is a true solo project: Garcia plays everything but drums (provided by the brilliant, underrated Billy Kreutzmann). The Wheel is also notable for the extended sound collage on side two, which suggests a psychedelic amalgam of The Beatles (“Revolution No. 9”), Hooteroll? and Pink Floyd. The brief instrumental, “An Odd Little Place,” is just a postlude to the previous song, while the mellow, tuneful title track showcases Jerry’s pedal steel to good effect. Fans of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (which I’m pretty sure is everyone) will find plenty of the same magic here. As songwriting partners, Garcia and Hunter had few peers. “Deal” and “Loser” use cards as a metaphor for life, “Bird Song” finds Hunter again beguiled by beauty, “To Lay Me Down” is a worthy candidate for the last-song-before-I-die list. Playing everything himself, Garcia doesn’t strike upon the same clever interplay as his bandmates (e.g., the bass guitar is pretty basic), but he does a remarkable job of approximating the feel of the Dead on his lonesome. In fact, The Wheel makes a compelling case that Garcia’s most sympathetic collaborator is himself.
Kronomyth 0.5: CAREFUL WITH THAT AXE, CLIFFORD. If Jerry Garcia had joined Pink Floyd, I imagine it would have sounded something like this. Hooteroll? owes its existence to the late 60s jam sessions led by Howard Wales and featuring Garcia, Bill Vitt and John Kahn. It’s really a Howard Wales record in disguise; Jerry is the draw, but Wales is the main musical architect. Like Tom Constanten before him, Wales appears to have been a very experimental cat. Many of these songs sound like they could have come from Floyd’s first two albums: “Morning In Marin,” “Da Birg Song,” “One A.M. Approach.” A couple of them favor the mellower side of Jefferson Airplane (“Evening In Marin,” “Up From The Desert”), and a few are relatively conventional R&B numbers that suggest later collaborations with Merl Saunders (“South Side Strut,” “DC-502,” “Uncle Martin’s”). All in all, Hooteroll? is one of the strangest Jerry Garcia side projects you’ll hear. If the Dead’s sonic spelunkering appeals to you, this album might just blow your mind. Wales is an amazing organist, Kahn really gets into it, sax/flute players Martin Fierro spices things up and Garcia is just the cherry on top of this sonic sundae. The idea that much of this music was probably improvised on the spot makes it even more amazing. For some reason, the original elpee lineup was reshuffled and renovated for the Rykodisc reissue, with “A Trip To What Next” replaced by “Morning In Marin” and “Evening In Marin.” Subsequent reissues reconciled all of the tracks on a single disc. In whichever form you find it, Hooteroll? is an absolute hoot, especially if you come with open ears and an open mind.
Kronomyth 2.0: HELLO DALI. You’re standing at the gilded gateway to the psychedelic revolution, the twin spires of “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” beckoning you with open mind. The Airplane’s second trip stands as the first truly great achievement in the cultural exodus to San Francisco. You could call it a groundbreaking record, but it’s more of a sky-opening one: the potentialities of popular music were significantly expanded with Surrealistic Pillow. Much of its genius stems from the different personalities within the band, all of whom brought something unique into the mix (including departed drummer, Skip Spence). There are the fragile, unreal ballads from Balin (“Today,” “Comin’ Back To Me”), the ambitious adventures of Paul Kantner (“D.C.B.A.—25”), the combustible rockers (“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”) and even an acoustic oasis (Jorma’s “Embryonic Journey,” which served as a sort of template for countless guitar interludes from “Embryo” to “The Clap”). Truly, the bands that came before appeared as men on a chessboard, moving in predictable fashion. Surrealistic Pillow’s charm is its unpredictability; you simply don’t know what’s coming next. The same could be said for the Airplane itself, which was flying straight into heavy turbulence, but here it’s all part of a fantastic journey. In 2003, the album was remastered and expanded with six bonus tracks, including a second Skip Spence song (“J.P.P. McStep B. Blues”) and Kantner’s “Go To Her,” both of which had turned up earlier on the catchall compilation, Early Flight.
Kronomyth 7.0: JACK A ROSE. I awoke to an unredeemable day (way back in 2005) and found that my review of Run For The Roses had been replaced by a better one on the All Music Guide. A writer suffers many indignities over the course of a career, so better to wish my first draft well in the land of shadows and re-cast this record without regret. Before proceeding further, I should mention that I like the Grateful Dead’s music from the late ‘70s (and as long as I’m opening up here, I also like Ringo Starr’s voice some of the time). I re-visit Terrapin Station often and have strolled down Shakedown Street without ill effect. All that to put into context the fact that I like Run For The Roses. Granted, I’ve listened to this album about a hundred times, drawn in by the promise of relaxed, tuneful music that resurrects the spirit of the Dead’s music at a time when the band was dormant. Tempering expectations that Garcia on his own would represent a diminished product compared to the work of the Dead, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the quality of his solo catalog. Although dispensing with the “band” nomenclature, this is essentially JGBv1.1, with Melvin Seals and Jimmy Warren replacing the Godchauxes and Merl Saunders (who still appears as a guest on one track). Where the last JGB album featured all-original material, Run For The Roses is heavy on the covers: The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” (radically re-imagined as a hiccupy honky-tonk song), Clyde McPhatter’s “Without Love” and a reggae version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” that would seem to cover Bob Dylan by way of Eric Clapton. Of the originals, the title track is the kind of subdued celebration of sound that Jerry brought to the band during the late ‘70s, while the soured romance of “Valerie” is a personal favorite of mine (best line: “I shot my dog, ‘cause he growled at you”). Of course, my affection for the album is probably borne from familiarity. I wouldn’t make this album your first foray into Garcia’s solo catalog, but when you run out of Dead you could do a lot worse than Run For The Roses.
Kronomyth 6.0: GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD FELINE BAND. Somewhere between Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street, Jerry Garcia and the Godchauxes found time to release a new album of material as the Jerry Garcia Band. Rounded out by some of Jerry’s regular sidemen (John Kahn, Merl Saunders, Ron Tutt) and featuring lyrics by Robert Hunter, Cats Under The Stars sounds a lot like those two Dead albums distilled down to their Garcia/Hunter and Godchaux songs. It’s not on a par with the last Dead album, and may be at least partly responsible for the subpar Shakedown (to which Garcia contributed only three new tracks), but it’s still a solid addition to the Dead’s Arista output (a period not synonymous with the band’s best work, lest you take that as a hearty endorsement). As for me, my heart tends to light up a little when I see the words Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter together, since the pair have been the source of much joy. “Rubin And Cherise,” “Gomorrah” and “Cats Under The Stars,” I’m happy to say, are right in line with what you’d expect from the Dead’s most enduring songwriting partnership. Although the album is a little light at eight tracks (including the short instrumental piece, “Down Home”), it makes up for it some with variety. The Kahn/Hunter reggae song, “Love In The Afternoon,” is one such surprise, Donna’s pretty pop song, “Rain,” another, and the airy “Palm Sunday” reveals that even Garcia and Hunter can still surprise us after all these years. Without a proper producer, the arrangements occasionally unravel (Run For The Roses, by contrast, felt overproduced), and you won’t find the same piquant instrumental interplay on Stars that you do with the Dead. On your way from the station to the street, however, there’s no harm done if you look this one up.
The greatest nine-fingered guitarist of his generation, which is probably not how history will remember the man, since one can only hope that history has more respect for the dead than I do. Speaking of which, yes, the Dead. Garcia was the great big teddy bear in the middle, his crazy fingers moving along the strings like lazy lightning while he walked his way through the american songbook. On the off chance that you live past 100, there is a lifetime of recorded music by the Dead to enjoy, with Garcia fixed firmly at its center.
As if that weren’t enough (and, honestly, it were and thensum), Garcia has also recorded more than a dozen albums of solo music over the years, including two incarnations of the Jerry Garcia Band as well as ongoing releases with longtime, local collaborators like David Grisman and Merl Saunders. Generally, the solo albums became less essential with time, with Jerry Garcia (1972) being very, very essential. Perhaps fittingly (or maddeningly, depending), Garcia’s live recordings have also received the attention of tireless archivists, so the rest of us can experience the magic of hearing Garcia sing Hank Snow’s “I’m Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail” on a Friday night at some community college.
In navigating through Garcia’s discography, keep in mind that his major-label recordings tend to mimic his music with the Dead at the time (e.g., Cats Under The Stars doesn’t sound radically different from Shakedown Street). The collaborations, on the other hand, can run the gamut from experimental (Hooteroll?) to country/folk music (which would describe most of the collaborations with Grisman). While some are better than others, all of Garcia’s releases reveal a deep affection for american music matched only by a bottomless generosity to share it with others.
Kronomyth 6.0: ANCIENT HARTSTORY. This is the musical companion to Hart’s autobiographic/academic exploration of the ancient history of percussion, Drumming At The Edge of Magic. Recorded with Zakir Hussain, Babatunde Olatunji, Sikiru Adepoju, Jerry Garcia and Airto Moreira, At The Edge mixes world percussion and electronics to create an ambient album that more often sounds like the work of Brian Eno (“Eliminators”), Tangerine Dream (“Cougar Run”) or Cluster (“Slow Sailing”) than the Grateful Dead. It’s a pretty spacey album some of the time, and I wouldn’t put it past Hart to have conceived this as a soundtrack for the creation/evolution of man (although, if that’s the case, we’ll be babbling idiots in our final stage). Of course, this disc is best appreciated by the percussively inclined. If you don’t dig drums, you won’t find any hidden treasure here. But if you’re already on familiar and friendly terms with the work of Hussain or Olatunji, then At The Edge may be of more than peripheral interest. Hart’s soundscapes, several of them written with Hussain, are interesting, evocative and no doubt conducive to contemplating your navel (as opposed to, say, operating heavy machinery). In the wider panethnic percussion circle that includes Hussain, Olatunji, Moreira, Acuna, etc., Hart may be our best North American ambassador. Although I found the followup fare of Planet Drum more to my tastes, the decision to engage the services of Jerry Garcia on At The Edge may give it the edge for Deadheads. Both are worth hearing and possibly owning at some point, presuming that forty minutes of pure percussion doesn’t beat you down.
Technically, I should tell you to run with both arms over your head, screaming. But in my heart I enjoy this scruffy, loveable fourfer. Yes it’s product, peddled by Fantasy through their affiliation with Merl Saunders. He, Garcia, John Kahn and Bill Vitt played some dates at the Keystone in Berkeley in the summer of 1973, which appeared on record as Live at the Keystone. Fifteen years later, performances that missed the first cut were released as Keystone Encores volumes one and two. So we’re talking specious with a capital spee, since it’s unlikely that a few nights in July at a club most of us haven’t heard of could be a source of any real magic. And really it’s not. Garcia’s voice is rough, the player interaction solid but lacking the little epiphanies you’ll find in the knotted woodwork of the Dead. And you don’t need to hear Garcia sing a version of “How Sweet It Is,” no matter how sweet. The attraction for me has always been of a sneakier sort, like when I stayed up late as a kid to watch Saturday Night Live. I know I shouldn’t be looking over Jerry Garcia’s shoulder, fifteen years after Keystone’s logical bedtime, waiting and watching for something magical to happen, but it feels good. Better than those horrible posthumous Jimi Hendrix tapes at any rate. The Keystone Encores aren’t hits or misses, they’re batting practice. You come here to see Garcia take his swings, to watch a titan in repose. If you coughed at the word “titan,” stay home, but I’ll gladly burn a midnight candle for Jerry Garcia most nights.