Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band,
Almost Acoustic &
Ragged But Right
(Jerry Garcia Family, 2010)

These two CDs, which come from live concerts Jerry Garcia and friends performed in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco in late 1987, spotlight the Grateful Dead co-founder's longtime devotion to American roots music. That affection has always been discernible in the Dead's self-composed, rock-based repertoire, where melodic or lyric allusions are there for those -- their numbers surely minuscule -- sufficiently informed to recognize them. If not a great vocalist, Garcia (d. 1995), who does much of the singing on these discs, was undeniably a pleasing one, with a warmth of tone many technically more accomplished singers never match.

Albeit released separately, the two discs could as easily have been packaged together. Most of the 29 cuts are traditional folk songs, all of them good ones, all standards from the 1960s revival that influenced a whole generation of musicians. In some cases I'm sure I can discern their sources. Garcia must first have heard both "I've Been All Around This World" and "Two Soldiers" on the late Mike Seeger's eponymous 1964 solo LP (sadly never reissued on CD) on the Vanguard label. Bob Dylan, who memorably covered "Soldiers" on his World Gone Wrong (1993), says he learned it from Garcia, which may be true in a strict sense, but I don't doubt that he, too, got his introduction on Seeger's record.

The recorded history of "Rosa Lee McFall" commences in 1936 with Charlie Monroe's 78. It's an eerily lovely song which, at least as I hear it (I suppose other interpretations are possible), concerns interracial romance, a theme startling and unexpected for its time. Among the better known songs -- at least to those who pay attention to traditional music -- are "Bright Morning Star," "If I Lose," Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene," Mississippi John Hurt's variant of "Casey Jones," Elizabeth Cotten's "Oh, Babe, It Ain't No Lie" and the Child ballad "Oh, the Wind & Rain" (a.k.a. "The Two Sisters"). Toss in a few chestnuts from the bluegrass and country songbooks, plus the Dead's beloved "Ripple," and you've got a grab bag of material that, while familiar, cannot fail to charm.

The audience before which this was performed is unrestrained in its enthusiasm. That's because it consists not of folk fans but of Garcia-loving Deadheads who came to hear the electric Dead as soon as Garcia's side project shuffles off the stage. We folkniks have heard all of these tunes before in their original, or at least other, iterations, done by musicians who play the roots sounds fulltime. In short, if nothing here supplants those, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band provides an enjoyable two hours or so of music it obviously loves. I hope that at least one or two of the Deadheads in attendance were intrigued enough to pursue it to its sources.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 February 2011

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