Tuesday, January 16, 2018

June 1974: Garcia on acoustic guitar

the Great American String Band, 5/5/74, courtesy jgmf
Even if you're a devoted listener to Garcia's music away from the Dead, I forgive you if you draw a blank on the Great American String Band.  Only a small few recordings circulate and Garcia's involvement didn't last more than a few months.  On paper, they may look a bit like Old & In the Way Mark 2, but the GASB was a wholly different group and differed in many interesting ways; Garcia's role in each is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but since his brief intersection with the groups fits squarely in with the larger narrative of June 1974, so I think it's worth dwelling on.  From this Garciacentric perspective, the GASB gives us the change to hear something that Garcia almost never did in the 70's: solo on the acoustic guitar.

First, to connect some threads: OAITW, as has been well documented (here or here if you need a primer) grew out of Grisman's, Peter Rowan's, and Garcia's informal jams in late 72-early 73.  Garcia got his banjo chops up to speed, they played around for a few months, did one small tour, attempted a studio album (scrapped), recorded a wonderful live album, and were long gone by the time that album was finally released to considerable success and acclaim.  In early 1974, Garcia began recording Compliments and recruited a number of other musicians for the sessions: in addition to bandmates Merl Saunders and John Kahn, participants included Grisman, Richard Greene, and guitarist David Nichtern, who was then playing in Maria Muldaur's band and enjoying her hit recording of his tune "Midnight at the Oasis" (Muldaur and her ex-husband Geoff were in the mix at this time as well, but that's another post).  Grisman, in the meantime, must have been searching for a new band of his own, and one catalyst seems to have been the rehearsals for a shared gig that Grisman and Greene played in March 1974, which also (partially) included Garcia -- there's no tape, unfortunately, but there are a few minutes of those rehearsals that circulate (info) and Garcia sounds delighted to be playing the music of another idol of his: jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Django et Stephane

Unlike OAITW, the group that grew out of that gig played a more progressive amalgamation of styles that was more in line with Grisman's vision of his own music: a mixture of old-time fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and the Swing-era acoustic jazz perfected by Django Reinhardt's and Stephane Grappelli's Quintette du Hot Club de France in the 1930's ("gypsy jazz" or jazz manouche to some) — according to Grisman’s own description of the group, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller were in the mix as well, although no recordings survive of those songs (afaik).  Grisman dubbed it "dawg music" and built his subsequent career around this concept, continuing to join together many different threads of acoustic American music.  Garcia’s involvement time with the group was peripheral: he didn't make every gig they played, but they opened once for the Dead and apparently Owsley Stanley recorded them for a prospective live album (still uncirculating; fingers crossed!).  There are currently only six circulating recordings of GASB performances with Garcia: four shows plus two shorter festival sets.  Three of those shows were from another mid-week Lion's Share/Keystone run in June 1974, further proof if needed that it was a unusually powerful month of peak creativity.

Discussing these tapes from a Garcia-centric perspective isn't an accurate assessment of them, but that’s what I’m going to do.  I find that his banjo often recedes into the background (and, interestingly, none of Grisman's own later groups featured a banjo), and while his playing is strong, he's not at the same technical level of the other musicians -- one charming but telling moment is when we hear him practicing a particularly fast banjo run a few times right before they begin Limehouse Blues on the 6/13 tape.  What stands out for me isn't his banjo playing, but rather the relatively little-reported fact that he was also playing acoustic guitar during these three June gigs (he doesn't play any guitar on the April recordings; and, to be fair, Blair Jackson does mention that JG played both banjo and guitar with the group in his Garcia bio).  David Nichtern was a fine guitarist and well-suited to this style, so I think the idea of having two guitars was to recreate the distinctive Hot Club sound on a few songs, the relentless chunkchunkchunkchunk swing rhythm that Django's groups achieved using multiple guitars instead of drums.  But Jerry Garcia wasn't going to stand onstage next to a guitar all night without playing a little: he takes a few solos that are worthy of attention, but they may be easy to miss if you just assume it's Nichtern (one close listen should make it clear that it isn't).  Remarkably, I believe these shows are the only recordings of Garcia soloing on an acoustic at all in this golden era of his music: in the decade between the Dead's 1970 and 1980 acoustic performances, Garcia played acoustic in public only one other time, at the one-off benefit gig on 11/17/78.

Much like the Garcia/Saunders gigs the week before, this run started at the small Lion's Share up in San Anselmo, then moved down to the Keystone. 

6/12/74 The Lion's Share (thanks as always to jgmf for determining that this tape has been mislabeled with the wrong venue.)
info: http://db.etree.org/shn/83290
Compared with the following night, this is a funkier quality sbd with a slightly uneven mix, although still a good listen.  Garcia seems to be getting his space together on guitar and working out the kinks on this first night -- he doesn't seem to be mic'ed as well, and his playing has a slightly more forced feel as if he's working harder to come through.  After starting the night on banjo, Garcia first gets on guitar for Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, leaning into it hard and sounding particularly sweet and soulful.  His work on the first Swing '42 (they played it in both sets every night) is a little rougher, especially next to Nichtern who sounds more comfortable and polished with this style.  In the second set, Grisman calls Russian Lullaby and it sounds like Garcia replies, "aw, no, really? aww" (I'm not totally sure of this, though) before setting off on his one vocal of the night.  Unlike all later JGB performances, it's played here in the Hot Club style arrangement used on Compliments (after Oscar Alem├ín's 1939 recording).  Garcia solos on the intro, and takes one chorus at the top and two more at the end before returning to the head.  He stays on guitar and takes two shorter solos (no Nichtern) on Maiden's Prayer, a lovely fiddle tune that they jokingly refer to as "Virgin's Lament" (it's a Bob Wills song, though Garcia must have also known this gorgeous Buck Owens version with Don Rich).  After another stretch on banjo, Garcia gets back on guitar for Sweet Georgia Brown (Nichtern takes the solo here) and the second Swing '42, with an even shorter solo this time.

courtesy jgmf; note the advertised personnel
6/13/74 Keystone, Berkeley, CA
info: http://db.etree.org/shn/13768 (sbd), http://db.etree.org/shn/110798 (aud)
This is both a more balanced recording and a better place to hear Garcia stretch out, if you only want to hear one of these shows.  The sbd has some cuts and is missing the end of the show, but Robert Castelli's excellent aud tape is complete.  Garcia's guitar is better mic'ed as well, which seems to allow him to play with a bit more sensitivity.  Lonesome Moonlight Waltz and the first Swing '42 sound even better tonight, but the real surprise comes in the second set with Russian Lullaby.  Garcia takes it at a sligher slower tempo and allows himself to really stretch out:

intro/Garcia solo > vocal > Garcia solo (1 chorus) > Grisman (1 chorus) > Garcia (2 choruses, after some uncertainty) > Greene (2 choruses) > Garcia (3 choruses; note the cool effect when the rhythm drops out at end his 2nd chorus) > vocal.

He sounds excellent on the second Swing '42, soloing for longer now, again serving to emphasize the differences between his and Nichtern's approaches.  Garcia then takes up the banjo for his second vocal for Drink Up and Go Home, a bluegrass number he would return to in the 90's with Grisman.  The set closes with Garcia on rhythm guitar for Sweet Georgia Brown, leaving the solo to Nichtern.

[edit: guest Bob Gurland sits in this night on "mouth trumpet," which I didn't realize at first actually meant a mouth trumpet... interestingly, the guy also sat in with the NRPS two months earlier in NYC]


6/14/74 Keystone, Berkeley, CA
info: http://db.etree.org/shn/110664
The only recording is Castelli's excellent aud tape of the 1st set.  Again, Garcia solos on guitar for Moonlight Waltz and Swing '42, and sounds excellent and well-settled in the groove both times, but not substantively better than the night before.

And that was all she wrote: two days later Garcia was on the road with the Dead and wouldn't share a stage with Grisman for another 16 years.  The Great American String/Music Band lasted through a couple more iterations, including Greene finally decamping to tour with Loggins & Messina in 1975.  More musicians came and went, and by the end of 1975 Grisman had met Tony Rice and established the first David Grisman Quintet. 

PS: a quick word is due, too, for bassist Buell Neidlinger ("Flame Bombadine") who sounds fantastic throughout these shows.  I don't know how involved in the group he was (Taj Mahal plays bass on the April tapes,), but Neidlinger does an outstanding job here.  I'm particularly fascinated by the fact that Neidlinger's career at this point already included work with John Cage and several records with avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (about as far from dawg music as it gets), and he went on to record and perform with a wide range of musicians -- look at this discography!  and a fine, extended interview is here.  He has impeccable time and a great swing, but also check out the wild bowed bass work in the outro of Maiden's Prayer on the 12th.  Between Neidlinger, Tony Saunders, Kahn, and Phil Lesh, Garcia certainly got to work with a full range of bass players that month!  Is it even possible that Garcia might have mentioned that he played briefly in a band with Neidlinger when Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman checked out a Dead concert in 1988?  Probably not, but ya never know.


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