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Published: 2001/09/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Grateful Dawg soundtrack – Jerry Garcia/David Grisman/various artists

Acoustic Disc 46
I have not yet seen "Grateful Dawg", the documentary by Gillian Grisman
about the musical relationship between Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, but – from the shape of the accompanying soundtrack – I am beginning to get a
sense of how it is shaped. The album is arranged quite cinematically, and
provides a gracefully linear aural history of the duo’s music, somehow
creating the feel of movement even though the disc is predominantly composed
of a single performance at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater.
The disc is served well by an introduction from Grisman in which he recounts
being told by Bill Monroe that "the best thing you can do if you learn to
play bluegrass is to go create your own style. So, Jerry, he started the
Dead style of music." Garcia chortles in: "David, he started Dawg
music."
The song that opens the album and gives the film its title, Grateful
Dawg, is a fusion of the two’s styles. Thus, the disc (and the movie, I
suppose) documents a journey to get up to that point. As a pure storytelling
device, as a lead, it’s a pretty crafty one: chose one point in time and
backtrack to figure out how it happened. A simple but effective device.
Behind Grisman’s banter, Garcia noodles in his distinct acoustic soloist’s
voice. We soon learn how he learned to speak that way.
Bill Monroe’s Wayfaring Stranger (performed by Monroe and his Blue
Grass Boys) begins with a mandolin trickle and a notable change in feel,
recalling the somber pop evoked in Terry Zwigoff’s "Crumb". One imagines a
montage of early footage appearing over the tune. Garcia and Grisman’s
double-banjo take on Sweet Sunny South occupies an important
historical spot on the disc. It’s not so much a Garcia/Grisman tune as a
spot in the progression between mountain folk and bright bluegrass.
Likewise, Old and In The Way’s take on Pig In A Pen captures the next
step: the straight-up high, lonesome sound.
The choice of representation is oddly refreshing. The sound that Monroe’s
cut exemplifies – spooky-ass old-tyme folk – is not what the father of
bluegrass is typically associated with. The traditional gospel tune (and,
presumably, it’s arrangement) predates his own innovations. Likewise,
Garcia’s participation in Old and In The Way postdates his own movement into
the electric beast of The Grateful Dead. In terms of representing the story,
though, it’s downright dandy.
It is after this that the narrative falters. Grisman’s Dawg’s Waltz
nicely represents Grisman’s next step from traditional bluegrass on his way
to developing an original sound. What is missing, unfortunately, is a mark
of Garcia’s own evolution. Thankfully, his history is known well enough to
proceed without it. For the sake of completeness, though, it would have been
nice to include a cut from "Reckoning", The Dead’s acoustic masterpiece
(Bird Song, perhaps).
The next we glimpse Garcia is his take on Sitting Here In Limbo,
showing off the grizzled crooner’s voice he perfected in the last 10 years
of his career (and used most effectively in his ballads and gently
reverberating collaborations with Grisman). Besides a pleasant though highly
unnecessary flashback to Ewan MacColl’s Off To Sea Once More, the
rest of the album documents a solid chunk of the Garcia/Grisman live show
with David Grisman Quintet’s ultra-responsive percussionist Joe Craven and
bassist Jim Kerwin.
Except for a few programming errors, the disc is simultaneously the
long-promised Garcia/Grisman live album as well as an historical overview of
their work. And it’s great. One complaint, though, might be with the lack of
documentation provided by the normally intensely scrupulous Acoustic Disc.
There is no indication of when and where the live cuts were recorded.
Perhaps this is meant to underscore the timelessness of the material,
affording them the ability to freely place the individual songs in the
larger story. If one is going to rearrange time for the purposes of a story,
that’s more than okay, it’s just nice to be able to reconstruct it in the
proper order in case one wants to give it a different reading.

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