The Very Best of Jerry Garcia
I was never a Deadhead but I was listening when The Grateful Dead first hit the radio in 1965 and I liked what I heard. I only later became aware of Jerry Garcia as an individual writer and performer. Because Garcia was so influential in creating the sound of The Grateful Dead, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, on his own, Jerry Garcia is far more eclectic and perhaps even more eccentric than was his most famous band, even at its most extreme. Listening to this double set of studio and live performances, I still like what I hear. I like it a lot.
To get the most out of these two sets, I recommend that the listener approach this music with no expectations. Rather than as a famous icon of a generation, think of Garcia as just another musician. Don’t buy into that “very best of” label. Don’t even accept that the music may be good because I’ve said it is. Just listen.
Given a career as long, varied, and eclectic as Garcia’s, I don’t believe that anyone can determine what is really the “very best” of an artist’s career. It’s all too subjective. What criteria are to be used? Who decides what is good, what is better and what is best? Even so, although it’s uneven in some ways, this 26 song retrospective presents a fairly complete picture of who Garcia was as a musician.
Almost half of the songs presented here had first been recorded by other artists. I find these eleven performances the most interesting. I’ve always found the term “cover” offensive because, when I was younger, this term had meant to perform the song pretty much as it had been on the original recording. Back then, and even earlier, artists had interpreted songs, performed them in their own manner without much, if any, attempt to be true the original version. I found no cover versions in these sets, but I did listen to some wonderful interpretations by a master stylist.
Written by Leon Chapeleau, “Deep Elm Blues” was first recorded in 1957 as the B-side of the rockabilly song “Wow Man” by Bobby Jackson, a disk jockey from Amarillo, Texas. It was subsequently recorded by a series of rockabilly and country artists. Somewhere along the line, the title morphed into “Deep Ellum” or “Deep Elem” and that version became a standard of The Grateful Dead. The 1987 live version by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic band holds true to this song’s rockabilly roots, intertwining elements of blues, country, and folk music. Rambling on for more than six minutes, this interpretation of “Deep Elem Blues” is unlikely to lose the interest of even the most jaded listener.
When I was a teen, two of the songs most discussed by me and my would-be musician friends were “Johnny Be Goode” and “Let it Rock” by Chuck Berry. To this day, they remain among my favourites. Jerry Garcia’s studio version of “Let it Rock” is a powerful interpretation. While it doesn’t replicate Chuck Berry, it echoes some lesser-known Chuck Berry sounds. Unlike many recordings of this song, my album cut from the 1956 Berry album of the same name is replete with Jazz and Blues references and sometimes wanders off the Rock & Roll track. I don’t know whether Garcia ever heard this recording, but his interpretation takes much the same approach, enriching this song with a variety of musical references. I could have listened to this track for six or even twelve minutes and still enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the track ends at just over three minutes with a fade that sounds like the original must have been much longer. In my opinion, Garcia or his producers should have taken the song’s advice and let it rock.
While both discs in this release span many genres, often mixing several in one song, they are different in overall approach. The studio disc tends to centre on Jazz, Blues, and mid-century popular music sounds. The live disc tends very much toward Country & Western or Folk music. What unifies the release is the sweet Rock and Roll centre that pervades every song on both discs.
It probably shouldn’t, but the Reggae on the live disc comes as a bit of a surprise. The two longest songs in the set are both based in the jumpy rhythms of this Caribbean music. At almost thirteen minutes, Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” is a masterpiece, as is the almost twelve minute long previously unreleased track of “Dear Prudence” from the pens of Lennon and McCartney.
Garcia’s interpretations of Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” [also long at nearly eleven minutes] and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” [another Reggae arrangement] stand with the best recorded versions of Dylan’s songs. It appears that Dylan was correct when he said that “Garcia was the best at covering his songs and if he wondered how to perform his own songs live, he looks at how the the Dead/Garcia did it.” [Wikipedia]
Other performances with which I was especially impressed include the very folky “Catfish John,” the plaintive “Senor,” Irving Berlin’s classic “Russian Lullaby,” Clyde McPhatter’s R&B standard “Without Love,” and the rocking “Evangeline.” Even so, there’s not a bad song on these two discs. I’m sure that each listener will discover his or her favourites.
Depending on who’s listening, the 26 tracks on this release may or may not be “The Very Best of Jerry Garcia” as the title suggests, however they do present a solid retrospective of Garcia’s career. For collectors, for fans, for hard-core Deadheads, and for those who may just be curious about this man and his work, I recommend giving this double set a listen.
You can learn more about Jerry Garcia and his art at the Pure Jerry website. This website also includes a Pure Jerry Sampler page where you can download six songs (one disc) in mp3 format or listen to an entire set of songs culled from the Pure Jerry series in the summer of 1995. There’s also a comprehensive biography of Jerry Garcia at Wikipedia. Gordon Hake has created a website In Memoriam for Jerry Garcia (1942-1995) which includes many interesting links. You can find the latest information about The Grateful Dead at the Official Site of the Grateful Dead. You’ll find some limited information about this release along with clips of all the songs at the Rhino store.
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