Monday, November 20, 2017
Feb 94 JGB: one last flash of greatness
"Very late era" (94-95) JGB is a corner that I'm guessing most listeners don't wander into. '93 JGB usually never fails to ring my bell, but by most accounts the big guy's final decline came hard and fast, so I tread cautiously in those final years. While there's a kind of dark beauty in the brief flashes of inspiration that broke through the fog at the very end, it's a game of diminishing returns for me to dig academically through shows that warrant, at best, a response like "this doesn't sound too bad given the shape he was in." Time, strength, cash, and patience, ya know. To be fair, some of it really isn't bad, but some of it is just awful.
I recently stumbled upon a real keeper, though. Having run out of fall '93 JGB shows to listen to (um, other folks also have this problem, right?), I dug into his next run of Warfield shows in Feb of 1994. These were the first nights out for new drummer Donny Baldwin, after David Kemper's dismissal. Frankly, another thing that this gives this final period an unpleasant whiff is Kemper's inexplicable firing, after 10 years of exemplary work in the engine room (more info). All I know about his replacement Donny Baldwin is what I've heard of him on these JGB tapes (and, um, the other stuff you can learn from Wikipedia). But, to be honest, he sounds great: if anything, he doesn't sound different from Kemper in any major way, but -- as Kemper himself pointed out -- just keeping this particular engine running was more challenging that it looked ("one foot on the gas, one foot on the brakes" is still one of the best descriptions of this band's sound that I've heard). The rehearsal that (I presume) was called for by Baldwin's arrival clearly did Garcia some good that weekend. His singing and playing is pretty strong for all three of these shows. As JGMF has noted, Garcia seemed to be paying more attention to his singing in this era, compensating for his raggedly worn chops with some extra attention to his phrasing and inflections, and it shows throughout these three shows, even with his voice past its late-period prime. Three stellar quality aud tapes by Warfield super-tapers Chuck & Linda Vasseur exist, and (unusually) there are circulating sbds for 2/5 and the first set of 2/6. Stick with the Vasseur auds, I say (although, see below).
2/4, the first night, is a pretty strong show, though not much jumps out as amazing or worth revisiting. They sound tight, and any slight tentativeness seems to come, understandably, from everyone letting Baldwin settle into his groove. The one major high point is a steaming Lay Down Sally jam: Garcia's chugging along, sounding fine, and then decides to hit his distortion pedal and something clicks into place. The audience feels it, Garcia responds, and you get one of those brief moments of aud-tape perfection as everything clicks into place. Nice work, old man! I also quite liked Strugglin' Man and Stop That Train. He doesn't sound like he has it in him for Deal, though (either on this night or the next), and the second set mostly never gets into high gear. It does seems like a bold move to break out Don't Let Go on Baldwin's first night, but his comfort level with turning the groove loose isn't there yet, so it stays pretty earthbound.
2/5 is more up-and-down. There's nothing bad, but the inspiration doesn't seem to be there. Notably, Garcia breaks out the first I'll Take a Melody since 1990 (which he would play only more time) and does a decent job with it. He works up a good froth in a surprisingly hot Get Out My Life Woman and, later, in Tore Up, and sings wonderfully on a fine Lucky Old Sun. Any lover of ol' man Jerry really going for it should check out how he belts out "lift me up to paradise!" around 3:25 in.
2/6, the final night, is what I would strongly recommend to the skeptical. Is this the last great JGB show? Garcia sure comes out swinging and doesn't let up. His setlist choices play a big part my feelings for this one, as he's pushing himself and avoiding the obvious. There's a fine jam in Cats, a transcendent first solo in Mission (and notice how Garcia takes more control over the tempo at the beginning), sharp stuff in Let it Rock, and a near perfect Like a Road. Even Breadbox, a tune whose jam doesn't usually do much for me, gets a very strong, focused work-out. The closing Everybody Needs Somebody blazes by at a faster past than the '93 leviathan versions, but not a note is wasted. Amazingly, the energy is kept up for the whole 2nd set -- even some of the more powerful '93 shows tended to peter out in the last lap around, but not tonight. Nice Harder They Come, a wailing Money Honey, and a textbook example of how sweet that pitch-shifting effect could sound in The Maker, which goes an extra few feet for good measure. Lazy Bones was one of those late-era left-field cover choices, but even this is taken at an ideal tempo, with Kahn's extra long bass solo as the only blemish of the show, unfortunately. Don't Let Go appears again, and although Baldwin still hasn't loosened up enough to let it soar, Garcia blazes through 17 minutes of it, tearing things up on his old wah-wah pedal. I'm not enough of an effects geek to know for sure, but he seems to have brought it back in late '93 (see 8/14/93, another blog-worthy show that's coming someday), and he usually meant business when he turned it on. He means it tonight! A rare Gomorrah is a great call for the final ballad and Tangled Up in Blue is the perfect close to an excellent night.
There's always an element of added excitement at hearing the old man working with a full tank of gas this late in the day, but speaking as objectively as I can, I still say 2/6/94 is a fantastic 90's JGB show. One last little moment to savor: on the sbd of 2/5, after a less-exciting version of Breadbox, one of the backup singers whoops out, "I love that song!" and Jer cheerfully responds, "yeah, that was great, man." Maybe they weren't nailing every song, but they sure sound like they were having fun -- by 1994, I get the sense that that just wasn't the case very often, so it feels special to hear.