|wrong Nicasio gig, but I love this poster|
Good gravy, this place was tiny! According to jgbp, the Rancho Nicasio was a resturant/bar that held all of 150 people, in a tiny, idyllic Marin County enclave. Their site has some nice pictures (funny coincidence, but Peter Rowan and the Rowan Bros are playing there tonight. Anyone got an extra (plane) ticket?). I assume the place was far enough off the beaten path that most Bay Area heads wouldn’t have bothered (I get that sense from posts like this about west coast deadheads’ willingness to travel in the late 70’s). But thankfully taper Phil Jaret did, and his recording is the only one that we’ve got at the moment (the newer transfer is pitch-corrected). It’s a pretty good, upfront recording that sounds fine on headphones. Not pristine, but it hits all the right spots and is plenty satisfying, and the music makes it well worth it.
The main reason to sing its praises is another (heretofore unknown to me) version of the mighty Sama Layuca, mislabeled in both filesets as Welcome to the Basement. It’s not quite as wild as the nutso 3/30/79 performance (ahem), mainly because only Ed Neumeister and Garcia take solos (Ron Stallings, Merl, and John Kahn all get moments in the 3/30 version). But holy moley, they throw down hard here. Garcia’s chomping at the bit, but Neumeister goes first. The band grooves hard underneath him, slowly loosens their grip, lets it get wild and hairy, then locks it back down, then loosens up again, and so on. I don’t know if Stallings was having a problem with his horn, but there’s a bit of float-time after Neumeister’s solo until Garcia steps up to bat and just nails it. After the same wild back-and-forth, it spills into some loud noisy space — listen close to how seamlessly Gaylord Birch snaps back into the groove of the song as the return for the ending. He’s such a fantastic drummer: over a very fast tempo (like 175 bpm), he easily shifts from tight control to unhinged freer playing with nary a stumble. Impressive! I associate him mainly with funk and R&B, but he more than holds his own in a freer context like this.
The rest of the show is pretty hot, too. Less than a week before the Dead debuted with Brent Mydland [edit: there's a long rehearsal tape that circulates dated 4/16/79], Garcia sounds like he’s pushing harder than usual. He’s particular on fire during a breathtaking tear through Another Star — very fast, but precise, and totally synched up with the horns’ accompaniment that structures the solo. He comes to a great (and perfectly timed) climax, then basically starts over immediately for a second go-round! He also seems pretty fired up for a long Soul Roach, not a song that usually registers for me, but he’s really belting here. Linda Chicana, Mohican and the Great Spirit, Long Train Running; all the instrumentals sound great, and they dig in pretty hard on the vocal rave-ups Lovely Night for Dancing and Make It Better. After the a cappella ending to Lovely Night, Merl says something like, “yeah, we in church today!” Amen to that, Merl.
postscript: if you're inclined, take a close listen to Ron Stallings' sax solo in the show-closing Long Train Running. That sounds like a soprano sax after his tenor solo, but the transition sounds way too fast for it to be Stallings switching horns (he does play soprano in Sama Layuca, though). Could it be a guest musician? Jaret's aud tape is tightly edited between most songs, so if something was said, we don't have it. It's no big thing, but it's worth noting.