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Published: 2012/08/01
by Brian Robbins

Some Acoustic Jerry Memories With Sandy Rothman & David Nelson

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band – October thru December, 1987

Sandy Rothman: Before the Broadway shows, we got together to play a few times at the Dead’s rehearsal hall on Front Street. I think it was after one of the sessions there that Jerry and I were sitting out front in the car, saying we’d like to have a fiddle in the band and talking about fiddle players. We enumerated the names of the ones we knew out here in California and commented on each of them. We both kind of agreed that they were all really good players, but probably more centered on the bluegrass-specific style.

I’d known Kenny Kosek for many, many years – we’d played on the street together a lot back in New York when I hung out there at different times in the 60s. He was the premier fiddler of that scene. I told Jerry as we sat in the car, “Of all the fiddlers I can think of anywhere, Kenny is the guy who knows the bluegrass vocabulary on the fiddle but isn’t limited to that. He has a good way of broadening his playing out into any genre that comes up.” And Jerry said, “That’s what we need.” We talked about some other people out here, but it kept coming back to Kenny.

Once we got to New York for the Broadway gigs, I called Kenny – I guess you could say it was pretty short notice. He was actually playing in an orchestra in a Broadway show at the time and was pretty busy with that. He had a free night the first week we were there and came over to play one show with us – it was really great. He couldn’t get there for another night or two because of the orchestra gig, but then he got free of that and played the rest of the Lunt-Fontanne run with us. The next month he came out for the West Coast shows.

David Nelson: Jerry saw us jamming to the point where the floor gets blurry, you know? You reach a point in a jam where everybody’s on their toes and playing right in the moment – and all of a sudden, you reach a place where it’s like, who’s minding the store? You have to have someone who’s a timekeeper – otherwise, it gets to be a blur of what everybody thinks the time is. Jerry saw that David Kemper could be in the background on drums and wouldn’t get in the way – because this isn’t drum music – and sure enough, it worked out just great.

In a bluegrass band, it’s the bass that keeps the time, but John Kahn was capable of just going out there – he was so creative, man. You listen to what he does on “Spike Driver’s Blues”, for instance … and you’ll realize that we needed a drummer to free up John to just go with it. Kemper kept it simple – just a snare. And it was just right.

Sandy Rothman: It was funny because David Kemper never practiced with us. He simply showed up in the wings at some of the gigs just before the curtain went up. His drum kit was already out there because he’d be playing in the band after us. He’d hold up his sticks and kind of look at Jerry like, “Do you want me to play?” And Jerry, being Jerry, would never say “No.” Overall, though, it worked out well.

David Nelson: I’d be getting nervous before each gig wondering what songs we were going to play. But then I’d see Jerry scribbling on a little tiny piece of paper and knew, “Okay – here comes the set list.” I’ve still got my old guitar case that I used on those gigs with all these little scribbled set lists in it.

Sandy Rothman: Jerry would always do the set lists. Often I was there with him and we would occasionally make little adjustments – flip one tune in front of the other or whatever. We also did that live sometimes; we’d never follow those lists exactly. Actually, I was surprised that Jerry liked to write setlists; I used to think the Dead were playing extemporaneously. But they did start with a list … if it’s not working, you can always go in another direction.

Most everything we played during those shows, we’d played at some point – although in a couple of cases, they were songs we’d last played back in the ‘60s. We might’ve gone over them quickly backstage – not the whole song, but a verse and a chorus just to see if we knew it – and then we’d improvise on stage.

There was that telepathic thing going on between the original three of us – Jerry, David, and I – and Kenny fit right into that. He was really careful to not step on what we already had going on. Plus, John Kahn had played a lot with Jerry, so he knew what was going on there. There was also the telepathy thing going on vocally; we rarely worked out beforehand whether there was going to be another chorus or whether there was going to be another verse or repeat the chorus twice at the end … most often that was strictly on the fly.

David Nelson: Sandy and I were both playing through mics, which made for a bit of a problem recording-wise.

Sandy Rothman: Both the bass and Jerry’s guitar had pickups; that’s where the name Almost Acoustic originally came from. Jerry had his banjo with him on Broadway, by the way. It was sitting on the stand on stage and everybody was yelling at him to play it – we were ready, as well – but he kept shaking his head “no.” He played it during soundcheck, but not during the shows.

David Nelson: When Joe Gastwirt mastered the albums, he worked on the levels. Sandy produced both albums and he was telling me, “Yeah, we tried to get your solos out there, but it’s really tough.” The guitar through a mic is much quieter than a mandolin and much, much quieter than a banjo … if you hear me playing anything on a solo, be thankful.

Sandy Rothman: One thing that bears saying is John Cutler recorded those shows simply as reference tapes. It wasn’t like he was recording with a sound truck – they were simply tapes to provide a record of the music and not intended for release. He really was lucky to capture what he did.

It’s interesting to note that if you listen to Almost Acoustic and Ragged But Right, it’s easy to tell which shows came from Broadway and which shows came from the West Coast. When you hear, “Jer-ree! Jer-ree!” that’s your New York audience, while Jerry used to say the West Coast audiences were “like an oil painting.” The East Coast audiences were much more participatory; the West Coast audiences were much quieter.

David Nelson: Here’s a moment just for me personally: one night well into the Broadway run we’re doing “Ragged But Right”. Jerry’s doing all this wonderful, wonderful picking stuff and he suddenly tosses it to me: “Take the solo!” Compared to the sound Jerry’s getting through his pickup, my guitar sounds like “Tink-tink-tink.” So I just barreled into it, saying to myself, “Play something you know can be heard at this moment on this mic.” I started doing all this two-string stuff and whatever, playing just as loud and wild as I could, figuring I was fighting a losing battle. And Jerry looks at me and yells, “Go Nelson – yeah!” That was just a supreme moment forever.

It’s A Long, Long Way To The Top Of The World: Sandy Rothman’s Mission, 1988 – 2110

Sandy Rothman: As producer, I caught a lot of flack after Almost Acoustic for not including “Turtle Dove”, which was the big favorite – I heard it said so many times over the years. When I showed some Deadhead friends of mine the mock-up of the album cover for Ragged But Right, the first thing their eye would light on would be the last song on the track list: “Ah … ‘Turtle Dove’! ‘Turtle Dove’ is on there.”

When I put Almost Acoustic together, I only had what Dick Latvala gave me on tape to work with – I didn’t have copies of the original DATs. Somehow, Almost Acoustic ended up being tracks that had no banjo – everything on my part was all mandolin and dobro – and it gave that record a bit of a slant toward the blues and oldtime country sounds and away from bluegrass. But I liked the flow of the songs that were on it, so I left it that way. Same thing for Ragged But Right – I just went with what felt right to me at the time.

Before Almost Acoustic was released, I made a cassette tape of the rest of the tunes and gave it to Jerry. He said, “Yeah – this is cool. This’ll be volume two.” We were going to release it fairly soon after Almost Acoustic, but then Jerry wanted to wait. He’d recorded his first album with David Grisman and said, “One of our songs is on that CD. I don’t want to compete with myself. Let’s let the project with Grisman sell for awhile.” That kind of shocked me – I’d never heard Jerry say anything so industry savvy before.

The last time we talked about releasing the second collection of songs wasn’t too long before Jerry’s death. He said, “Yeah, we could release that at any point.” But once he was gone, everything got difficult and nothing happened for about 15 years. I made consistent efforts – letters, phone calls, personal visits – over the years to restart the project by going through the official channels. But nothing happened and I wanted to do it right.

Alan Trist is the guy who actually helped get things rolling for Ragged But Right. Alan’s the publishing agent for Robert Hunter’s Ice Nine Publishing and an old friend of Hunter and Garcia from way back. He’s the one who told me about the family company being formed and eventually I contacted Peter McQuaid, who was the new CEO for the Jerry Garcia Family LLC. In early summer of this year, Peter sent me an e-mail saying they were ready to do it.

It turned out that the box with the original DAT tapes had been kept all this time in a locked facility not that far from Joe Gastwirt’s studio where the final editing and mastering was done. Once the process started, it happened really fast.

There was a temptation to interweave the tracks from Almost Acoustic with the songs chosen for Ragged But Right to make a new program, but we decided not to. Almost Acoustic had been out of print for a number of years and there were a lot of newer listeners who had never heard it … we thought we should keep it the way it was. I couldn’t compare it to Workingman’s Dead or any classic album like that, but it’s had a long life, it sold very well, and people liked it a lot. It just felt right not to change it.

But the basic collection of songs that became Ragged But Right existed shortly after Almost Acoustic was put together.

Encore: Two Soldiers, 2010

David Nelson: I count myself lucky to be right in the thick of playing music with those guys. From being a kid in the early ‘60s to doing those acoustic shows years later … just great, man – just great.

Sandy Rothman: When you walked into Jerry’s living room, the banjo was always right there in the case, next to the TV set. Acoustic music was never far from Jerry – it was always like that through the years, no matter what else was going on.

This kind of music was what he always turned to – but he loved all roots music. Appalachian music was near and dear to him, as was old country blues and pre-bluegrass old-time stuff, gospel music, R&B. All of it.

Jerry was always turning people on to music that they maybe never would have listened to on their own – and he still is.

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