CD Review: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders, Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings

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1973 was a pivotal year for Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Pigpen died in March, and Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders had settled into a regular routine of playing at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. While they had been playing together since December, 1970, after Jerry stopped playing with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, he and Saunders became frequent companions, meeting up to play totally different types of music from what Jerry played with the Dead, or with the New Riders. In 1973 Garcia was also playing in the short-lived Old and In the Way, a bluegrass band, but he and Saunders still managed to play a few dozen concerts together, and would eventually play 266 gigs.

But in 1973, Jerry and Merl were hot. While the Dead were performing some of their best concerts, Jerry’s side projects showed him in a different light, playing blues, standards, Bob Dylan songs and much more, in a jazzier, more R&B tone. Together with other band members John Kahn and Bill Vitt, this recording features two complete shows, July 10 and 11, 1973, and shows the range of Jerry’s non-Grateful Dead material.

With the exception of a couple of Dylan songs that the Dead would cover twenty years later, not one song in these two shows was in the Dead’s repertoire. They range from standards like My Funny Valentine to R&B songs such as I Second that Emotion and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You), by way of a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come. (The film of the same name, which broke reggae out of its island, was released in 1972.)

Listening to Jerry Garcia play guitar and sing these songs shows how versatile he was. Remember, he had just come off a period playing country with the New Riders of the Purple Sage; he was in a bluegrass band, Old and In the Way; and the Grateful Dead was exploring traditionally influenced songs and psychedelic jams. Yet Jerry’s other side was this: playing standards and R&B, in his own band.

The music in this set is fairly well known. About 3/4 of it was previously released on three different albums, dating back to 1988. But now, all the music recorded on these two nights is available in this 4-disc set, in the order in which the songs were played. The band was hot, the sound is great, and there’s nearly four hours of wonderful music here, at a very nice price.

If you’re a Deadhead, you already know how great these shows were, and you probably have some of the earlier releases. You should still get this, for the extra hour of unreleased material and the better sound. If you’re not a Deadhead, listen to some of the samples on Amazon; this music is very different from that of the Grateful Dead. If you don’t like the Dead, you may find Jerry’s solo work to be wonderful. This is a testament of a great guitarist playing the music he liked when he wanted to relax, at his peak, with a fine backing band.