Category Archives: Merl Saunders

Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Bill Vitt: Live At Keystone (1973)

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.

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Jerry Garcia: Garcia (1974)

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.

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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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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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Robert Hunter: Amagamalin Street (1984)

“I do believe the album is a failure. I don’t think I interpreted some of the songs right. I think the songs are pretty good. My voice gives me a lot of trouble.” – Robert Hunter, in an interview from 1985.

Kronomyth 5.0: AMAGAMALIN MAN. Robert Hunter’s first album of new music in nearly a decade was a double-album song cycle about down-and-out losers living on the city streets. Inspired by a visit to NYC, Hunter’s story follows the intertwined lives of Chet, his friend Murphy and their (shared) girlfriends Roseanne and Maggie. Although the Dead/Dylan parallels hold, the album’s defeated characters and Hunter’s clever wordplay keep bringing me back to Lou Reed, an association I hadn’t made before. In some ways, this feels like a country-rock version of Reed’s New York, with the caveat that Reed could sing rings around Hunter. I’d have to agree with Hunter’s own harsh assessment of Amagamalin Street, since it does fail to capitalize on a great idea. Hunter tries to do too much on the opening “Roseanne,” singing the parts of both Chet and Roseanne in rapid-fire fashion, resulting in a sometimes confusing dialogue. The language is interesting, authentic, rich in nuance (when you stop to think about it), but about midway through I found myself wanting Hunter to both slow things down (so I could hear everything) and speed things up (because I was getting tired of the music). The second side continues the depressing tale of Chet’s manipulation of Roseanne, resulting in her descent into prostitution. The second side picks up the story of Chet, Maggie and Murphy. Chet is eventually dispensed with on “Rambling Ghost,” Maggie and Murphy escape on “Out of the City,” but Maggie dissappears on “Where Did You Go?” At the end of Amagamalin Street, Murphy connects with Roseanne, and a slightly brighter future for the surviving pair is implied. Yes, it’s as depressing as it sounds, the hopeful ending feels tacked on, and Hunter’s voice effectively undermines the first half of the story (he sings in a lower register for Murphy, with better results). That said, Amagamalin Street is appreciably ambitious, well played in places (the backing band does a solid job with Hunter’s sometimes spare melodies) and lyrically astute. I’d say it’s only a partial failure and a partial triumph, since completing something of this magnitude isn’t easy. Hunter’s fans presumably come to hear what the man has to say, not to hear him sing, and he says a mouthful here. At some point, it would be great to hear this staged with different singers and richer arrangements, since the idea and the lyrics merit the effort.

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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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