Thursday, September 14, 2017

Who Was John? The Jerry Garcia Band in 1976

Jerry Garcia Band is a lot harder to get into than the Grateful Dead. First of all, the shows aren't on (often accessed by the relisten app these days)  so you have to use to download via torrent software. Much harder to quickly sample, you have to commit! Or you can buy the handful (albeit a terrific handful) of official releases from Round Records/ The Official Garcia Site. So its much harder to devour a bunch of the music quickly to learn the ropes and figure out what you want to focus on. Secondly, there is a real lack of scholarship compared to the Grateful Dead. All of my favorite Dead blogs do get into it a bit (Hooterollin Around, Lost Live Dead and Dead Essays). Jerry Garcia's middle Finger is probably the foremost internet JGB scholar with a ton of show reviews and some really interesting and insightful research. So while you can find reviews, if not detailed analysis of countless dead shows, there just isn't nearly as much Garcia Band scholarship.

Oberlin College 3/23/76 Dennis Dockton
To those that do delve into Jerry Band though, a treasure trove of beautiful, soulful and fun music awaits. For a nerd like me, I had reached a bit of a stale point in listening to the Dead. I had sampled every time period extensively and while I was still discovering shows I liked and different versions of the material, I longed for that wide open frontier I had at the beginning with Grateful Dead music. Tapes to consume, era's to learn, repertoire's to familiarize one's self with. Something to sink my teeth into! With JGB, the line up changed fairly regularly through the years so it was like learning the whole Pigpen>Kieth and Donna>Brent>Vince and Bruce>Vince thing all over again. Only I'm still not there yet. There are a lot more changes through time. For a thorough and meticulously researched overview of the JGB line-ups, check out this post from Lost Live Dead.

Oberlin College 3/23/76 Dennis Dockton
 One thing I learned fairly quickly:The 1976 Jerry Garcia Band is incredibly special. I've had two significant mentors in my dead listening journey. Rich Lemire has been giving me Dead Shows 10gb at a time (we pass back and forth a flash drive known as  the rage nug) for around 5 years and has been my constant 'BS about the Dead' partner. Pat Kinsella I met via the hippie hat pin collectors scene and preached 1976 JGB like it was a religion (because it is. Sunday's are for Jerry). He gave me a list of JGB shows to familiarize myself with that had some prime 76 on it. I'm eternally grateful for these folks. The education and great conversations have meant so much to me.

The 1976 line-up (Kieth Godchaux out of frame). Ed Perlstein, Rolling Stone
The simple, professional and perfectly suited for the material line-up is what makes the year so special in my opinion. Kieth and Donna Godchaux cross over with Jerry from The Grateful Dead and are perhaps a better fit for this line up than the 1976 Grateful Dead.  The material, drawing from soul, R n B and Gospel is ideally suited for the soulful Muscle-shoals Veteran Donna-Jean and the honky-tonk jazz piano tinkler Kieth. Kieth was born to play these parts and Donna was born to sing sweet harmony with Jerry. She does some phenomenal lead singing as well on Strange Man and Stir it Up.

 The secret power behind this line up, in my onion, is the masterful drumming of Ron Tutt.  One of the more interesting career paths in American Music, the Texan started playing Western Swing and Dixieland early in his career. In 1969 he successfully auditioned for the Elvis Presley TCB Band, an unprecedented amalgam of musicians with different musical styles that came to Elvis in a dream (or so the story goes). He backed Elvis for the rest of his career until the King left the building in 1977. After that, he went on to be Neil Diamond's drummer. A gig he still holds down. While Still Elvis's drummer in 1976 and early 1977, he took another gig: The Jerry Garcia Band. A gig he really didn't need considering Elvis must've payed pretty well. Something about Jerry or the music he wanted to play must've been compelling. In an interview with Ron Tutt, he sites Elvis's charisma as something that drew him in to want to play music with him. Jerry Garcia was certainly very famous for his charisma (though of a COMPLETELY different flavor) so maybe it was just a matter of being drawn in by compelling and creative individuals?

We're lucky to have a recent Rolling Stone interview with Tutt talking about his time playing in and recording with the Jerry Garcia Band. Check it out here.

Throughout the entirety of Jerry Garcia's solo career, John Kahn was there. Lost Live Dead  does a phenomenal job documenting his career both with and without Jerry Garcia if you want to delve deeper. He was a popular studio musician and could play bass in nearly any style of music. Interviews with the man are few and far between however. Here's one taken shortly before he died. There's a bit of conversation in David Gans and  Blair Jackson's beautifully compiled This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead but I can't seem to find any of his own words anywhere else. This sets up a lovely segue:

Who was John?

Who was John? was originally recorded in 1936 by the Mitchell Christian Singers an A Capella group from North Carolina. According to their Wikipedia: "They pioneered a 'primitive' idiosyncratic style of  A Capella gospel singing: curiously wailing, syncopated spirituals, with a "down home" quality, featuring with an interplay of voices that anticipated the sound of post-war gospel quartet."
It's well documented that Jerry Garcia was obsessed with American folk and traditional while John Kahn's love of Black American music is well known. While suitably obscure for both of their tastes it made perfect sense as a song to bring to the Jerry Garcia Band's repertoire. Especially in 1976 where there was a clear focus on gospel music.

The song was in the JGB orbit before that however. It was recorded on the Kieth and Donna Solo album in 1975. It's lovely to think of the band set up in the Godchaux's living room in Stinson Beach with little Zion napping away. Garcia and Mountain Girl were living up the coast  a bit so he could pop down any time and work on it. They apparently hung out a lot during that time listening to gospel records. The Album cover is a picture of Zion with a doodle by Jerry of his idea of what Zion's thoughts were like. Zion followed in his parents footsteps and is in Boombox who are jamband festival staple.

According to my count using the setlists, Who Was John? was played by the Jerry Garcia Band about 26 times with its first known live performance at the Keystone Berkeley on 1/27/76. There's a rehearsal tape from 1/25/76 from Club Front where they run through it along with most of the 76 line up of tunes. It's last known performance 11/16/76 at Sophie's in Palo Alto. There are a number of missing setlist's from this time period which would lead me to believe we're missing at least another one or two performances. It was overwhelmingly played in the first set or early show, almost always the fourth or fifth tune. It's best known performance can be found on Gracia Live 7: 11/8/76 also at Sophie's. It doesn't survive 1976 which is curious to me considering what a great tune it is. There doesn't appear to much else shaken up in the repertoire and Tutt doesn't leave until the end of the summer of 1977. Who knows? You can't exactly jam it so maybe that has something to do with it. Perhaps its better it didn't survive the year though...the tune retains that 1976 magic.

Calderone Concert Hall 3/30/76
Despite the challenges of getting deeper with Jerry Garcia Band, I consider it a worthwhile graduate seminar for any student of the Grateful Dead. I think 1976 is particularly stunning. If you love 1976 and 1977 Grateful Dead (who doesn't?) this configuration is critical in understanding why Jerry was playing so well in those years. With a star studded line-up perfectly suited for the material, this band shimmers and shines on the lovely audience recordings. John Kahn was the constant in Jerry Garcia's musical life outside the band. In a recent /reddit AMA Linda Kahn confirmed what many Dead scholars believed: John Kahn selected much of the cover material for Jerry Garcia's side projects. The odds are pretty good that he brought the spooky 30's A Capella tune to Kieth and Donna and subsequently brought it over to 76 Jerry Band. Perhaps with even a bit of sense of humor about his quiet legacy? Who Was John indeed!

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