Friday, August 10, 2012

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Bands 1969-1994


The 1988 Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band album over
Jerry Garcia was a largely acoustic musician throughout the early 60s. While he seems to have occasionally played electric bass or something for the odd paying gig, for the most part he was a true folk musician. This dynamic reversed itself in mid-1965, when the Warlocks formed and Garcia became a full-time electric musician. As Garcia's career became more professionally stable, however, and he had more control over some of his choices, it is notable that he kept returning to acoustic music. In particular, besides simply playing the occasional formal or informal session on an acoustic instrument, Garcia seems to have regularly taken on acoustic projects every few years. The timeline suggests that Garcia felt a musical need to have some sort of acoustic project periodically, independent of his other musical goals.

This post contains almost nothing in the way of new information. I am attempting to look at the arc of Garcia's acoustic projects from 1969 through 1995, with respect to their duration. This post is
  • not a list of every Garcia acoustic appearance
  • not a list of every Garcia acoustic configuration
  • not a platform for discussing variant lineups or disputed or vague dates
Rather, it is an attempt to consider the ongoing arc of acoustic projects throughout Garcia's career, once they became truly optional. The focus here will be on the timeline and the output of the projects, such as it was, rather than the specific performances that comprised each configuration. In a recent interview, Sandy Rothman said
When you walked into Jerry’s living room, the banjo was always right there in the case, next to the TV set. Acoustic music was never far from Jerry – it was always like that through the years, no matter what else was going on. 
A careful analysis of the arc of Jerry Garcia's acoustic projects from 1970 through 1995 bears Rothman out. A closer look also suggests that Garcia's most focused acoustic projects were implicitly designed to produce an album. Once that album came out, Garcia seemed to largely drop the prior acoustic configuration, moving on to another one a few years later. Many, if not most Deadheads, myself included, often wished that Garcia would return to the music and arrangements of an earlier presentation, but clearly he had little interest in doing so, embodying the restless searching in his music as a whole.

The cover to the 1970 album Workingman's Dead
Jerry Garcia And Bob Weir (Late '69-Early 70)
First show: December 26, 1969-McFarlin Auditorium, SMU, Dallas, TX
Last show: March 1, 1970-Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
Jerry Garcia-acoustic guitar, vocals
Bob Weir-acoustic guitar, vocals
In late 1969, Garcia and Bob Weir started performing a portion of Grateful Dead sets as an acoustic duo. This wasn't completely without precedent: Garcia had played acoustic guitar on stage with the Dead in early 1969 (on "Mountains Of The Moon"), the New Riders Of The Purple Sage had an acoustic feel even if they weren't acoustic, and there had been the mysterious "Bobby Ace And The Cards Off The Bottom Show" from June 11, 1969, for which we have a setlist but no tape.

In late 1969, however, Garcia and Weir elevated some of these experiments to a regular part of Grateful Dead shows. Songs by Buck Owens and The Everly Brothers joined the many R&B and old-timey songs in the ranks of Grateful Dead covers. I believe that on occasion, other members of the Dead added instrumentation to the acoustic guitars, but in general the performances were just Jerry and Bob.

My limited understanding is that Garcia (and probably Weir) were unhappy with the ways that the guitars were amplified, and dropped the configuration by the end of February 1970. Nonetheless, I think the effort was fruitful. The very first instrumental performances of "Uncle John's Band" present a pretty spaced out jam, and yet the album version on Workingman's Dead is a melodic sing along in the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash. I'm not trying to make any argument about which was the chicken and which the egg, but given Workingman's Dead, I feel confident that Garcia and Weir's experiment as an acoustic duo was quite serious, and was not undertaken because a drummer was late.

The album cover for 1970's American Beauty lp
An Evening With The Grateful Dead (Mid-1970)
First show: April 17, 1970-Family Dog On The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
Last show: September 26, 1970-Terrace Ballroom, Salt Lake City, UT
Jerry Garcia-acoustic and electric guitar, vocals
Bob Weir-acoustic gutar, vocals
Phil Lesh-electric bass
Bill Kreutzmann-drums
plus: John Dawson and David Nelson-vocals
An acoustic format returned to the Grateful Dead in the Spring of 1970. The basic configuration of the acoustic sets had Garcia and Weir on acoustic guitars, backed by Lesh on bass and Kreutzmann  on drums. Different members would join in sometimes, including Pigpen on occasional piano or harmonica and Nelson and Dawson on harmony vocals. I have never gotten a convincing answer on whether Kreutzmann or Hart played drums, whether they switched or shared, and so forth, but I believe that Kreutzmann played drums for the acoustic set and Hart played the New Riders sets.

Garcia has commented on occasion that he was greatly influenced by the fantastic English band Pentangle, who had opened for the Dead during the Live/Dead stand at Fillmore West. Similar to Pentangle, Garcia would play a little bit of electric guitar on certain numbers, but the basic frame was two acoustic guitars and a rhythm section. This acoustic configuration of the Grateful Dead appears to have been a significant influence on the sound of the American Beauty album, recorded in the Summer of 1970. While American Beauty is dominated by electric instruments, all but one or two songs seem rooted in the basic format of the acoustic Grateful Dead at the time.

However, the acoustic format that seems to have been the genesis of American Beauty disappeared in the Fall of 1970. Garcia had commented some years later that he was unhappy with the amplification, and I'm sure that was true, given that the Dead were playing bigger and bigger places. However, Garcia was not one to return much to his acoustic forays, so I don't think the band and its engineers made any effort in the ensuing years to actually solve the problem of acoustic instruments in a rock setting.

The album cover for the 1975 lp Old And In The Way, recorded in 1973
Old And In The Way (1973)
First show: March 2, 1973-The Record Plant, Sausalito, CA
Last show: November 4, 1973-Gym, Sonoma State College, Cotati, CA
Peter Rowan-acoustic guitar, vocals
David Grisman-mandolin, vocals
Jerry Garcia-banjo, vocals
John Kahn-acoustic bass
Richard Greene, John Hartford or Vassar Clements-fiddle
The acoustic Grateful Dead dropped out of the picture in late 1970, but Garcia seems to have been unable to do without acoustic music for too long. In late 1972, he started playing bluegrass music for fun with his neighbors David Grisman and Peter Rowan. By early 1973, they had decided to form a bluegrass band, and Garcia invited John Kahn to play with them. In the arc that I am considering here, it is worthy of note that there was neither a sound nor sensible reason for Garcia to start performing with a bluegrass group. The Dead were finally making a little money, and the Garcia/Saunders were developing into a popular club attraction, so Garcia could make a little money and have a little fun on the side without a bluegrass group.

The fact that Garcia formed a bluegrass band in early 1973 was a clear sign that Garcia had an artistic need to play acoustic music periodically. Bluegrass music, unlike electric music, can be played quite well in the living room, so Garcia clearly needed to play for an audience rather than just with his friends. I have detailed the history of Old And In The Way's formation at some length elsewhere, so I won't recap it here, but the variety of FM broadcasts and recording projects associated with the band was a clear sign that Old And In The Way was a serious and sincere enterprise for Garcia. However, at the end of 1973, Old And In The Way reached its end (notwithstanding a sort of 'reunion' show at the April 28, 1974 Golden State Country And Bluegrass Festival in Marin).

Great American String Band (Spring 1974)
First show: March 10, 1974-Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA
Last show: June 14, 1974-Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
David Nichtern-acoustic guitar
David Grisman-mandolin
Richard Greene-violin
Jerry Garcia-banjo
Buell Neidlinger or Taj Mahal-acoustic bass
Old And In The Way appears to have been a finite project, intended to only exist throughout 1973. Having spent '73 transforming bluegrass, Garcia and Grisman decided to spend 1974 transforming all American acoustic music. To that end, Grisman coordinated the formation of the Great American String Band. Garcia did not play every show with the group, who also used the name Great American Music Band. The group debuted on March 9, 1974, and Garcia's first appearance with them was the next day. Garcia's busy schedule only allowed him to stay in the group for a few months, and he left after June '74. Ultimately, the group evolved into the David Grisman Quintet and they indeed change American acoustic music.

Following his departure from the GASB in June 1974, Garcia went six years without a serious acoustic project. This interregnum was the longest period of Garcia's career where he didn't play acoustic music on a regular basis. Garcia did play banjo at two low-key performances in February 1975 by The Good Old Boys, his last performance on banjo until the 1990s. Garcia also played acoustic guitar on a few studio recordings, and there was the one-off benefit in Chicago in 1978, but Garcia had no serious acoustic outlet until 1980. I have read that Garcia was uncomfortable with the technical difficulties of amplifying acoustic instruments, so perhaps that was a significant factor. As both the Dead and Garcia had become a bigger attraction over the years, concerns that Garcia may have had over amplification would have been magnified.

The cover to the 1981 double lp Reckoning
Acoustic Grateful Dead (Fall 1980-Spring '81)
First show: September 25, 1980-Fox Warfield Theater, San Francisco, CA
Last show-May 22, 1981-Fox Warfield Theater, San Francisco, CA
Jerry Garcia-acoustic guitar, vocals
Bob Weir-acoustic guitar, vocals
Brent Mydland-grand piano, harpsichord, vocals
Phil Lesh-electric bass (John Kahn on acoustic bass for the two 1981 shows)
Bill Kreutzmann-drums
Mickey Hart-drums
To the delight of everyone, the Grateful Dead made an unequivocal return to acoustic performance in the Fall of 1980. Garcia commented that he was finally happy with the quality of the amplification and monitors of his acoustic guitar, and this presaged his general willingness to play acoustic guitar on stage for the balance of his career, if somewhat intermittently. In an early 80s Guitar Player interview, Garcia also commented on his appreciation for the band Pentangle, which is how I found about it.

The new acoustic Dead took the time to learn a variety of songs the band had not played in many years, as well as learning some numbers that had never been played acoustically, like "Bird Song." Their willingness to rehearse was a clear sign that the Dead took the acoustic project seriously. However, it's my contention that the band learned and performed the acoustic numbers in order to record and release  Reckoning, and never had any intention of going beyond that.

Although the Grateful Dead played a few dozen shows at the Fox-Warfield in San Francisco, the Sanger Theater in New Orleans and Radio City Music Hall between September 25 and October 31, 1980, they all but completely dropped the format afterwards. The Dead played at a children's hospital, and then opened their 1980 New Year's Eve show with an acoustic set, and a hybridized version of the band with John Kahn played two benefit shows in 1981, but no configuration of the Dead would play acoustically again until 1994.

One of the key lessons Garcia seems to have taken from the Fall 1980 acoustic Dead performances was the ease with which he could make an acoustic appearance without saddling up the entire cavalry. Following the Spring 1981 shows, Garcia made regular appearances at Bay Area benefits as an acoustic duo or trio, with Bob Weir and/or John Kahn and Rob Wasserman. Fascinating as those miscellaneous performances could sometimes be, they were not projects and thus are outside the scope of this analysis.

The acoustic Grateful Dead produced the 1981 double lp Reckoning, the band's definitive acoustic statement. Just about every song they performed in their Warfield/Radio City run was included, and while you can argue about performances, in general I thought the choices on the album were excellent. Sure, they left off the acoustic version of "Aiko Aiko," but I saw it (or one of them) and it was just a lark. I think the Fall 1980 shows were a conscious plan by Garcia and the Dead to get their acoustic selves on record and they did so. Having done it, they moved on.

In one way, Reckoning was very much a return to the American Beauty era "An Evening With The Grateful Dead" sound. Yet the 1970 acoustic shows had featured largely new and even unheard songs--they played an acoustic "Truckin'" one night--and the Reckoning version was mapping familiar territory, with no new originals and no covers that were truly new to the band. From one point of view, Reckoning could be seen as unfinished business. Now that the technology was in place, the Grateful Dead were recording the live acoustic album--unplugged, anyone?--that they should have recorded in 1970. Once the month of Reckoning shows were complete, however, acoustic shows were soon off the table for the rest of the band's career.

Joan Baez with the Grateful Dead (Fall '81)
First show: December 12, 1981-Fiesta Hall, San Mateo County Fairgrounds, San Mateo, CA
Last show: December 31, 1981-Oakland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, CA
Joan Baez-vocals, acoustic guitar
Jerry Garcia-acoustic and electric guitar, vocals
Bob Weir-acoustic guitar, vocals
Brent Mydland-grand piano
Phil Lesh-electric bass
Bill Kreutmzann-drums, percussion
Mickey Hart-drums, percussion
People mostly forget the Grateful Dead's relatively extensive collaboration with Joan Baez, and those people who saw the live performances know why. Mickey Hart and Joan Baez were a couple at this time, and Weir was always a big fan of Joan's, so the Dead actually recorded an entire studio album where they backed Baez on mostly original material. Most of it has remained unreleased. Baez and the Dead also performed together three times in December 1981. I have written about that at length, so I won't recap it here. In the context that I am considering Garcia's acoustic work, the Baez album was a serious, sincere project involving a lot of original material, not just a few old folk songs. It didn't work out, but Garcia made much more of a commitment to it than just a one-off benefit.

Jerry Garcia and John Kahn (1982-86)
First show: April 10, 1982-Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ
Last show: November 14, 1986-Veterans Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael, CA
Jerry Garcia-acoustic guitar
John Kahn-acoustic bass
The acoustic pairing of Jerry Garcia and John Kahn presents an interesting conundrum in the context of this analysis. On one hand, Garcia and Kahn played many acoustic shows together over several years, possibly more than any other combination listed here. From another perspective, however, a good case could be made for the proposition that the Garcia/Kahn duo was not a project at all, just a sort of stripped-down version of the Jerry Garcia Band. The duo never recorded as such, and I am aware of no plans that were ever afoot to even attempt a live recording or release.

In the early 1980s, the Grateful Dead's finances were not good. At the same time, Garcia was interested in various film projects, and as a result his own performances had to be cash-positive. Apparently Garcia was told (correctly in my opinion) that his fans would see him endlessly as long as he varied his presentations. Thus Garcia played some East Coast shows as an acoustic duo with Kahn (I'm aware that the first show on April 10, 1982 was actually solo, but it's a tangent to this post), and it became a nice counterpoint to Garcia Band shows. When Garcia and Kahn came through a town after the Garcia Band, they played a different set with different interpretations, and Garcia's fans were always good for another go-round.

That being said, however, Garcia and Kahn's repertoire added nothing new to the Garcia canon. They played some Garcia Band songs, and some 'acoustic Dead' songs, but nothing really new turned up. Here and there a somewhat forgotten song like "Going Going Gone" made an appearance, but on the whole it was more of the same. By the mid-1980s, while Garcia/Kahn shows had a comparable number of songs to JGB shows, they were shorter, so there was some implicit dissatisfaction amongst Garcia fans. I know that for myself, while I enjoyed seeing the Garcia/Kahn duo, having seen them a few times I felt no need to go out of my way for them.

It's also true that shows by Garcia and Kahn must have been quite profitable. This was no small thing during a cash squeeze. With just two band members and a modest amount of equipment--and therefore crew--smaller venues were definitely in play, particularly if tickets could be sold to both early and late shows. On the other hand, Garcia was never without options, palatable or not, and he would not have played so many acoustic shows with Kahn if he had not enjoyed making music in that format. Garcia's next acoustic iteration proved this point. 

Ragged But Right, the second album by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, scheduled for release in 1989, though it was not released until 2010
Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band (1987-88)
First show: March 18, 1987-The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA
Last show: July 9, 1988-Frost Amphitheater, Stanford U, Palo Alto, CA
Jerry Garcia-acoustic guitar, vocals
David Nelson-acoustic guitar, vocals
Sandy Rothman-banjo, dobro
John Kahn-acoustic bass
with: Kenny Kosek-fiddle (Fall '87)
        David Kemper-drums (Fall '87)
In July of 1986, Jerry Garcia had a life-threatening episode, and he had to re-learn the physical aspects of playing guitar. He played some acoustic during this period, and even made a guest appearance at a Grateful Dead Thanksgiving party as part of an acoustic trio with Sandy Rothman and David Nelson. When Garcia was asked to play a benefit at the Fillmore for various 60s poster artists, he could have chosen to simply do the show with John Kahn, but he brought along Nelson and Rothman. The quartet played a brief set of old-time music, rather than the contemporary or original material that was part of the Garcia Band repertoire.

While I think that the Garcia/Kahn pairing of the early 80s had an element of financial convenience to it, I also think that Garcia genuinely liked playing acoustic. According to oft-told legend, Bill Graham was so impressed with the quartet's appearance that he said "I've gotta do something with this group!" and Garcia wryly said "take us to Broadway, Bill." Graham in fact did that. After a few Bay Area shows, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band opened for the (electric) Jerry Garcia Band for 15 shows at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York on West 46th Street (a dozen subway lines converge on it).

in complete contrast to the Garcia/Kahn duo, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band learned all new songs, or, more correctly, re-learned songs that the core trio had not played in many, many years. When they played Broadway, drummer David Kemper was added to the group playing a minimal kit, and legendary fidller Kenny Kosek joined as well. The JGAB went on to open some JGB shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and some of the best material was used for the excellent album Almost Acoustic. There were plans to release a second album, as well, although that was delayed about 23 years, when Ragged But Right was finally released.

According to a recent interview with Sandy Rothman, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band trusted their memories and musical abilities:
Most everything we played during those shows, we’d played at some point – although in a couple of cases, they were songs we’d last played back in the ‘60s. We might’ve gone over them quickly backstage – not the whole song, but a verse and a chorus just to see if we knew it – and then we’d improvise on stage.
There was that telepathic thing going on between the original three of us – Jerry, David, and I – and Kenny fit right into that. He was really careful to not step on what we already had going on. Plus, John Kahn had played a lot with Jerry, so he knew what was going on there. There was also the telepathy thing going on vocally; we rarely worked out beforehand whether there was going to be another chorus or whether there was going to be another verse or repeat the chorus twice at the end … most often that was strictly on the fly.

Interestingly, as a marker of Garcia's approach to his more fully realized acoustic projects, having completed their enterprise by December, 1987, the Jerry Garcia Band disappeared. By the time the album came out in December 1988, the band had ceased to exist. The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band did play an odd, one-off show at Frost Amphitheater in Stanford on July 9, 1988, but I am convinced that was a late minute addition because the University did not want an electric Garcia show.

The pattern of Garcia's acoustic projects seems to have been that the serious ones existed for a relatively brief period of time in order to create some kind of album, and then the configuration or band dissolved. Any configuration that existed intermittently for a long time, like Garcia's duos with Weir or Kahn, were not designed by Garcia with any particular intent. By that standard, the Garcia/Kahn duo was not a serious project at all for Garcia, however much fun he may have had actually performing. Conversely, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band was a much more meaningful project for Garcia, but that very fact seems to have limited its tenure.

The cover to the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman album Shady Grove, released in 1996, and recorded from 1990-93
Jerry Garcia and David Grisman (1990-95)
First show: December 17, 1990-The Sweetwater, Mill Valley, CA
Last show: May 5, 1994-The Warfield, San Francisco, CA
Jerry Garcia-acoustic guitar, vocals
David Grisman-mandolin, vocals
Jim Kerwin-acoustic bass
Joe Craven-percussion, fiddle
The latterday collaboration between David Grisman and Jerry Garcia has a unique standing from the perspective of Garcia's acoustic projects. In retrospect, Garcia's partnership with Grisman provided an outlet for Garcia to record acoustic music in a relaxed setting with diverse accompanists, rather than existing as a primarily live vehicle. Since Grisman's excellent studio was in the garage of his Marin home, and Grisman was willing to coordinate sessions and even release the albums on his own label, all Garcia had to was show up and play. On some level, that was Garcia's goal, particularly with acoustic instruments: just show up and play. By the time the 80s ended, Garcia's appearance anywhere, even a recording studio, attracted enormous interest. Grisman's house was one of the few places he could hide out and just play, and with Grisman he had a rare partner who was on Garcia's own level as a player.

Garcia and Grisman had apparently had some kind of falling out in 1975 after the release of the Old And In The Way album on Round. As always--whatever people may say--it seems to have been about money. In a late 70s interview with BAM Magazine, Grisman complained that Vassar Clements was owed a few thousand dollars that he had never recieved, and (to paraphrase) "one member of the band owned the record company." Of course, Garcia probably lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Round/GDR debacle, but he had the Grateful Dead to fall back on.  Nonetheless, time wounds all heels, and by the end of the 1980s, the bridge between Garcia and Grisman had been rebuilt. They started to hang out and jam--there's reason to think that perhaps Garcia was just looking to get out of the house--and once Grisman realized that only the Dead, not Garcia, were contracted to Arista Records, the door was open to release Garcia/Grisman albums on Grisman's new Acoustic Disc label.

The actual performing debut of this ensemble was at Mill Valley's tiny Sweetwater club (at 142 Throckmorton) on December 17, 1970. For most people, however, the coming out party was on February 2 and 3, 1991 at The Warfield. To some extent, Garcia kept to the Pentangle-style configuration of two guitars and a rhythm section, although of course Grisman mostly played mandolin and percussionist Joe Craven mostly played well amplified tablas (and on occasion, himself). However, performances by the Garcia/Grisman band were few and far between, if rapturously received.

As it turned out, however, it seems that pretty much every time Garcia went over to Grisman's house, they went to the garage to play and the tape deck was switched to "on." While Craven and bassist Jim Kerwin were the most regular in attendance, all sorts of formal and informal configurations were in play. A wide variety of material was covered, too: James Brown, Miles Davis, Missisippi John Hurt, you name it. Grisman's studio and record company allowed Garcia to play the acoustic music he wanted to with some kind of intimacy. Since Garcia, by nature, was always "on," there weren't rehearsals, in that sense. The pair just played. If the take wasn't right, they played it again, but every take was for all the marbles. In that respect, although unfinished, the Garcia/Grisman canon on Acoustic Disc gives us the broadest and clearest perspective on what Garcia wanted to do with acoustic music, and we are the richer for it.

Since the Garcia/Grisman partnership was not conceived as a performance vehicle, they seem to have approached their musical projects differently. It appears that they worked on different thematic albums, such as children's music, jazz standards, old-time music and so on. Not all of these were complete before Jerry's departure, unfortunately, but Garcia and Grisman's music still points toward a tendency to organize his acoustic ventures into specific projects.

Some remarkable video was released in 2001 of Garcia and Grisman recording in the latter's  studio, as part of the video Grateful Dawg. Garcia is quite comfortable with both the audio and video recorders running, a mark that he was used to being the center of attention after a few decades. While Garcia was always guarded in certain ways, I don't think he was any different on camera than he would have been at Grisman's house in any circumstances, as Garcia had been the center of attention wherever he was since the late 60s.

The most revealing part of the video, to me, is where Garcia and Grisman stop picking for a minute and start talking about old bluegrass songs that they like, and for a minute they are fans like everyone else, talking about their favorite records. Garcia, whatever his other problems may have been at the time, is animated and excited like you or I would be when talking about our favorite music. Then Grisman says (approximately) "we should get all those [bluegrass] guys together and make an album." Garcia's shoulders instinctively sag and he turns his head--"then we'd have to make all these arrangements and everything," he says, dismissively. Grisman, hopefully, says "I'd take care of it." But Garcia shakes his head, and Grisman drops it. At least he tried.

By the early 1990s, I think Garcia wanted to play electric music to as large as audience as possible, loud and vibrant with sound ringing out from all sides. But acoustic music was chamber music to him, and there weren't any living rooms left for him to play in peace, nor even anything like The Boarding House (capacity under 500), much less the Stinson Beach Community Center (even smaller). All he had was Grisman's home studio. Garcia had started out as a professional musician practicing bluegrass in David Nelson's parent's living room, and he wound it up in his friend's garage, a final refuge from the legend he himself had created.

Phil Lesh And Friends (September 24, 1994)
September 24, 1994-Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley, CA
Jerry Garcia-acoustic guitar, vocals
Bob Weir-acoustic guitar, vocals
Vince Welnick-piano, vocals
Phil Lesh-acoustic bass guitar, vocals
I'm not much for the counterfactual, trying to guess what might have been. Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995, and sad as it was, his health was not great, so it wasn't just bad luck. It's remarkable that the man created so much music in his time as a musician. Nonetheless this survey wouldn't be complete without a glance at the last acoustic Grateful Dead performance. Phil Lesh agreed to do something for the Berkeley High School music program, where he himself had learned music in the late 1950s. The Berkeley Community Theater was also the school's auditorium, and Phil packed the place with an acoustic show featuring Bob Weir, Vince Welnick and Garcia. As well as being the first Phil And Friends show, it was also the last glimpse of the acoustic Grateful Dead, since the ten song set featured some actual Grateful Dead numbers that had not been performed in a while.
Walking Blues
Lazy River Road

KC Moan

Dupree's Diamond Blues

Childhood's End

When I Paint My Masterpiece

Attics Of My Life

Cassidy

Bird Song

Throwing Stones
Did this lineup of Phil And Friends actually rehearse? If they did, I'll bet it wasn't more than once, in the dressing room. Nonetheless, the presence of "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and "Attics Of My Life" meant that the members had to at least discussed what they were going to play, a sign of a little more seriousness on Garcia's part than knocking off "Little Sadie" again. It's not farfetched to think that Garcia was ready for another acoustic Grateful Dead episode. The Grisman/Garcia partnership seemed to meet Garcia's need to create acoustic music, but they were never going to tour much. With all the improvements in live sound and monitors, Garcia might have been amenable to another Reckoning-type project, but like many other possibilities it was not to be.

Jerry Garcia's Acoustic Legacy
Jerry Garcia began the 1960s trying to be an acoustic "folk" musician, and from one point of view he failed. Of course, he has a well-deserved legend as both a guitarist and, for lack of a better term, a signpost to new space. Yet as a result of Garcia's status as an electric guitarist and San Francisco icon, he had a far larger acoustic legacy than is usually realized.
  • The Grateful Dead were psychedelic legends by the end of the 1960s, even if they weren't that popular. Thus when "Uncle John's Band" lead off Workingman's Dead, the fact that a 60s guitar avatar was sounding a lot like Crosby, Stills and Nash was an invitation to many musicians and fans that it was OK to like that sort of stuff. Songs like "Friend Of The Devil" are now bluegrass standards, played in pizza parlors on Bluegrass Tuesday all over America.
  • Old And In The Way only played a few dozen show in 1973, and only released an album 16 months after their last performance, but they were a profoundly influential band in modern bluegrass. Certainly John Hartford and many others were making progressive bluegrass in the early 1970s, but it wasn't reaching a wide audience. With Garcia on board, Old And In The Way opened the door to bluegrass to numerous listeners, not coincidentally including me. They were a great band, of course, but they were also the first bluegrass band to publicly sing songs about weed, a much more significant divide in the 1970s that is worthy of another post. Thanks to Garcia, Old And In The Way opened the door to long haired pot smokers liking bluegrass, and that is Garcia's biggest acoustic legacy and contribution.  The popularity of bluegrass music today is a testimony to the beauty and depth of the music itself, but Jerry Garcia had a huge role in getting young music fans to check it out in the first place.
  • The David Grisman Quintet is one of, if not the, most important ensembles in American acoustic music. All credit due to Grisman and his cohorts, but they might have had a harder time getting off the ground without Garcia's participation in the early days of the Great American String Band. 
  • David Grisman's Acoustic Disc label, separate from but including the Quintet, has been an important force in promoting everything good about both traditional and new American acoustic music (not to mention a few other countries). Without some best selling Garcia/Grisman albums to kick off the label, some of the more fascinating but less lucrative releases may not have been so viable. 
Paradoxically, Jerry Garcia's most serious acoustic music projects from 1969 onwards seem to have been finite. He had an idea, he worked with other musicians--inside or outside of the Grateful Dead--to do some live work in preparation for some recording, and then the configuration faded away. The longest running collaborations, the duos with Bob Weir or John Kahn, for example, were more of an expression of Garcia's enjoyment of playing acoustically while retaining some fiscal sanity. Garcia's formidable accomplishments and recorded legacy as an electric guitarist have minimized his remarkable contributions to popular modern American acoustic music.


6 comments:

  1. Very, very nice. Excellent. Thanks!

    Two quick points.

    1) I am not entirely satisfied with the dismissal of Garcia/Kahn as of a different genus that the real projects. I don't disagree with your analysis of how it's different from most of the others you discuss, but rather than trying to sort it out of the primary category of interest, I am more interested in exploring the whole pattern. I don't have an elegant way to do that, but I am not satisfied with your approach here, either.

    2) Regarding the Grateful Dawg scene, I know it well. It is wonderful evidence of how Jerry was constrained by that point. But I also thought that maybe the Bluegrass Reunion was precisely the album that they mooted in that scene. And so, there was an album attached to it as well, and Grisman ended up making it all happen. Insofar as that's true, it supports a slightly more expansive view of Garcia's constraints in the Grisman era, and puts a slightly more positive gloss on the episode in the movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Both of your points are good. To respond:

      1) It's true that I give really short shrift to the Garcia/Kahn duo, mainly because they don't fit my narrative structure. On some level, I kind of did the Aristotlean thing where you avoid the argument by categorizing them as a separate animal, and then use that as an excuse to ignore the point.

      Nonetheless, Garcia and Kahn was neither Fish Nor Fowl. It had an ongoing existence parallel to the Garcia Band, yet it was intermittent. It was a financial convenience, but one that Jerry enjoyed. I couldn't find an analytical mechanism for explaining the Garcia/Kahn duo, but I think they are part of the history of the 1980s Jerry Garcia Band. Since this post was already 6000+ words, I had to stop somewhere.

      2) I forgot about the Bluegrass Reunion album, thanks. Still, I think Grisman was making his own album (with Herb Pedersen et al) and got Garcia to show up for an afternoon and play three songs. That's great, but that's not the album that I (and I think Grisman) wanted: The Jerry Garcia Bluegrass All-Stars, with Carter Stanley, Vassar Clements and Bill Keith, or something on that order.

      It's still very true that Garcia's participation in the Bluegrass Reunion fits my model of project-oriented sessions.

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  2. A short note on the Dead's acoustic sets:

    You write that "Garcia's most focused acoustic projects were implicitly designed to produce an album."
    It could be argued that the Dead's 1970 acoustic sets had just this in mind, as many of the Workingman's/American Beauty songs were played live for a while (acoustically) before being recorded.
    After American Beauty was in the can, the acoustic sets (save for some in Nov '70) stopped.

    Strangely, the Dead did advertise "acoustic Dead" shows in Dec '70, but seem to have changed their minds about that. A little mystery...

    Garcia mentioned in the '81 Jackson/Gans interview, "All of that acoustic stuff that we did on that acoustic double set [LP] was the result of about three afternoons of rehearsal. That means the harmonies, the arrangements, everything. We spent such a small amount of time preparing for that, and it yielded an enormous amount of results."

    I think you're right that the 1980 acoustic sets were intended strictly for the live album. (As in, 'we're already planning to multitrack some shows this fall, why don't we try something different?')

    In the 1985 Guitar Player interview, Garcia was asked -
    Q: Why has the Grateful Dead limited its acoustic sets?
    Garcia: I don’t know. I think Weir doesn’t feel comfortable playing acoustic music. I personally would like to do it more often. Bob doesn’t seem to like to do it very much, so we don’t press it. If anybody feels even a little negative about something, we don’t do it.

    Q: How did the Grateful Dead’s 1980 acoustic sets come about?
    Garcia: I just thought it would be a good idea. We tried it, and it was fun. The technology came into place too. That was one of the reasons we didn’t do it for so long — we used to try it with microphones, and it really didn’t work. It’s much easier now that they have made vast improvements in amplified acoustic instruments. The audience liked it a lot...

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  3. LIA, thanks for including the quotes I was alluding to.

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  4. Per an interview (I think the one with Lisa Robinson that is available at Wolfgang's Vault), Jerry was unhappy playing acoustic guitar live until the pickup was invented. Once he could plug in his acoustic guitar, instead of having to rely solely on a microphone in front of its strings, he started playing acoustic guitar live much more frequently.

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