Kronomyth 2.0: KAHNSESSION STAND. Jerry Garcia was no stranger to cover songs, and yet his first studio album as a cover artist turned out to be surprisingly, wonderfully strange. Produced and arranged by John Kahn, Garcia’s second eponymous solo album—often referred to as Compliments because of a sticker that appeared on the original elpee which read “Compliments of Garcia”—featured the Dead vocalist/guitarist in a number of unexpected settings, from Van Morrison (“He Ain’t Give You None”) to the Marvelettes (“When The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game”). The arrangements are likewise unusual: boozy horns that recall The Kinks (“What Goes Around”), orchestral settings (“Mississippi Moon”) and a version of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” that’ll charm your socks off. Jerry Garcia has always been a fan of other people’s music, but his interpretations tend to stay faithful to the originals. Here, Garcia (under the able direction of Kahn) interprets the material in his own unique idiom. The result has more in common with the musical revisionism of Bryan Ferry and David Bowie than Keystone, as it makes you hear the music in new ways. Garcia has never made another album quite like it. Together with his first eponymous album, an acknowledged classic, Compliments forms a complementary pair of bookends. The first was all about the Dead; this album is Garcia the Undead, transporting his voice and guitar into new and unfamiliar settings. In 2004, Rhino re-released this album with ten previously unreleased (and completely predictable) R&B covers that add not one iota to the record’s charm. In 2015, the original Compliments was re-issued in a limited-edition version to commemorate Record Store Day, proving yet again that record stores know more about good music than record labels.
Kronomyth 1.5: ORGANIC JERRY. Jerry Garcia jammed with two very different organ players, Howard Wales and Merl Saunders, during the early 1970s, with very different results. Hooteroll? was an experimental trip. Live At Keystone is a leisurely walk through the American songbook, from Bob Dylan (“Positively 4th Street”) to Rodgers and Hart (“My Funny Valentine”). Honestly, I find this to be one of the least interesting avenues in the Jerry Garcia journey. The recording mix is poor, the performances often perfunctory (in large part, it would seem, because the band was working out the arrangements as they played). There must be countless official bootlegs that will be of more interest to Garcia’s fans. In the 1980s, Fantasy split the original double album into two volumes and added an unreleased performance to each. (Perhaps because of better mixing, the two “new” tracks are noticeably better than the original 10 tracks, suggesting a return to the vaults may be in order.) While it’s always fun to hear Jerry thumb through Bob Dylan’s back pages, the band’s sleepy rendition of “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is a missed opportunity. Midlights (there really are no highlights) from the double-elpee set would include Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and the opening instrumental, “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers” (credited simply as “Keepers” on the Volume II reissue). For that, you’ll need to sit through an 18-minute version of “My Funny Valentine” and an almost 10-minute version of The Byrd’s “It’s No Use” that sucks the life out of the original. Fantasy returned to the scene of the crime for a pair of Encores, which aren’t any more or less interesting than what made the first cut here.
Kronomyth 1.0: AMERICAN BEAUTEROLL. 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 5.0: MIRROR MORTALS. In my temporal distraction, I’ve taken to playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning lately. It’s a good RPG composed of endless multi-part quests. You talk to a gnome to find a key that unlocks a chest that contains a crystal that opens a gate to—well, you get the point. It’s ironic that I would use something like this as an escape from reality, since my reality these days is little more than a series of mundane quests. I visit an appliance store, pick out a stove, battle with the installation department to have it delivered, fend off early and unscheduled delivery of said stove, pursue the installation department again over mountains of red tape, ad nauseum. In the end, I’ll complete the quest, the beneficiary of more experience points, and move on to the next quest. All of which would seem to have little to do with Jerry Garcia’s fifth solo album, except that we’ve been down this road before, and I find myself musing whether I pursue his solo works as a Dead distraction or a redaction. For me, the best parts of the Dead are the Garcia/Hunter compositions, for their minor-key melodies, pearls of wisdom and Garcia’s kind and craggy voice. And so, for me anyway, a Garcia solo album promises a distillation of what’s best about the Dead. Only distilleries aren’t an exact science, and I often feel as though Garcia should filter his product a little better. When Garcia sings “I’ll take a melody and see what I can do about it / I’ll take a simple C to G and feel brand new about it” (from Allen Toussaint’s “I’ll Take A Melody”), you wonder whether the head Dead might be revealing his hand on Reflections. Garcia and Hunter could probably write these songs in their sleep, yet they’re still the stuff of dreams. I could listen to “Mission In The Rain” for hours, invariably perk up when I hear “Might As Well” or “They Love Each Other,” grow quiet when I hear “Comes A Time” and feel a lump in my throat at every blooming of “It Must Have Been The Roses.” The Dead albums around it (Blues For Allah, Terrapin Station) are better, but the whole gang is here, making Reflections something of a hybrid Garcia/Grateful Dead record. It’s not as essential a purchase as The Wheel, not as fun as Compliments, but a better bet to please Deadheads than the Jerry Garcia Band albums that followed (which otherwise take a similar approach in their mix of covers and originals).
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.
Kronomyth 11.2: DAWG BONES. In the last years of his life, Jerry Garcia sat down with the David Grisman Quintet to play and sing american country and folk songs, many of which he had never recorded before. These songs are captured on Garcia/Grisman (1991), Shady Grove (1996) and, finally, Been All Around This World. Although this is the last disc in the series, BAATW is not a case of Dawg’s dregs. Garcia’s reading of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest,” for example, or the dire mining song “Dark As A Dungeon” are some of the better fruits of the union between the guitarist and the mandolier. Jerry Garcia’s voice had grown worn and weary with age, but it still sounds better in the studio than it did on stage, where the pressures of touring took its toll. Here, Grisman’s mandolin and Garcia’s guitar seem evergreen and ever-willing to bound along the black dots for one more song. If you don’t enjoy the acoustic side of Garcia, then some of this may sound like hillbilly music (e.g., “Drink Up And Go Home,” “I’m Troubled”). And I’m sure there are cynics who see these recordings being made in the interest of profit rather than posterity. But I for one would tell you my world is a little richer for having heard them. All of these stolen moments are ripples in time, really, and you can blink them out of existence or watch them go by in wonder. If you blinked the first time, keep your eye out for these Grisman/Garcia recordings, and you might just find yourself back home again.
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.