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Published: 2004/12/31

Pure Jerry: Lunt-Fontanne Theater, NYC, 1987 – Jerry Garcia Band

J. Garcia Records

Jerry Garcia never needed a Halloween costume. As Warren Haynes noted in his recent ballad to the Dead frontman, he was in perpetual disguise, as complicit in his own obscurity as some of the most galloping misinterpretation in rock history built around galloping misinterpretation. In the convoluted haze that envelops our rock icons, the truth often exists as a mean between extremes. Somewhere within the blurred image of Jerry Garcia, between the man Ted Nugent called a "pathetic lump of shit" and the nauseating trustafarian demi-god image propagated in lot scenes across a musical America searching for its soul perpetually in the wrong places, there's a vision, like a Polaroid buried at the bottom of a desk drawer, of an affable, inherently haunted guy who just really loved music. It's the version that always seemed to suit Garcia best, and the one that these forthcoming documentations of his '87 Halloween run with the Jerry Garcia Band illuminate with impressive precision.

The four disc set, consisting of two acoustic shows and two electric sets, dissects the definitive elements of Garcia's musical identity with fluid ease. The most significant of these threads is Garcia's basic love for songs, particularly those which maintain their own insular histories, weathered musical relics with coffee-stained edges infused with the same light and dark contrasts that lay at the definitive core of The Grateful Dead; songs that always found themselves in such meaningful accord with the way Garcia sang them, with a characteristically endearing imperfection perpetually striving for something just beyond itself.

Garcia plays to that intimacy by reaching deeply into his cavernous archive and pulling out a series of worn familial numbers ranging from stomping, interactive jaunts ("Deep Elem Blues," "Ragged But Right," "If I Lose") to more loping campfire ballads ("I'm Troubled," "Blue Yodel #9," "Ripple") that sway with the drunken, sentimental cadence of sailors on a sinking ship. The gems, however, come in the form of the bonus dressing room rehearsals of "I'm Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail" and "Poison Love," which compress that feeling of closeness a bit more intensely. Underscored by his then-recent brush with death, the sets powerfully reveal the tremendous flexibility of his talent as a guitarist, establishing the mutable, bluegrass- influenced relationship between his acoustic and electric play. Saturated in a running, streamy sense of satori, Garcia bunches his solos into expelled breaths, like bubbles bursting frenetically into melodic material on the surface of a boiling sonic stew.

While the acoustic set dusts off more archaic material, the electric sets find Garcia exploring some of his modern influences. Skipping across a spectrum of contemporaries, the discs form a grab-bag of covers ranging from the more predictable selections from Dylan and The Band ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "I Shall Be Released," "When I Paint My Masterpiece," "Tangled Up in Blue," among others), The Beatles ("Dear Prudence"), and Van Morrisson ("Crazy Love," "And it Stoned Me") to Allen Toussaint ( "I'll Take a Melody," "Get Out Of My Life Woman"), which, like Garcia, are all heartfelt though tattered.

Of course Garcia wrote, or at least co-wrote, some pretty damn good songs himself, and the band accordingly mixes in spirited if not entirely satisfying renditions of originals such as "Deal" and "Run for The Roses." The singular moment of the Halloween show, however, comes in the band's hilarious performance of "Werewolves of Broadway," a slight titular manipulation of the Zevon staple. Listening to Garcia's rapturous howling in the chorus, as if channeling Rick Danko's Festival Express rendition of "Ain’t No More Cane," is worth the price of the album, standing on its own as a vintage Garcia moment, the way that such moments do, in the same fashion as After Midnight’s epic "After Midnight > Eleanor Rigby > After Midnight" progression did in the last release.

Though it's the acoustic element that carries the weight of this album's appeal, the juxtaposition provides a portrait of Garcia that is as intimate as it is complete, making it as must-have for Garcia fanatics, bluegrass fiends and Deadheads alike, but even more essential for poor shlubs who just love music.

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