Category Archives: merl saunders

Jerry Garcia: Run For The Roses (1982)

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 I awoke to an unredeemable day (way back in 2005) and found that my review of Run For The Roses had been replaced by a better one on the All Music Guide.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.

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Jerry Garcia Band: Cats Under The Stars (1978)

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.

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Merl Saunders/Jerry Garcia/John Kahn/Bill Vitt: Keystone Encores, Vol. 2 (1988)

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.

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