The Jerry Garcia Collection, vol. 1: Legion of Mary – Legion of MaryPure Jerry: Warner Theater, March 18, 1978 – Jerry Garcia Band
Rhino Records 74692
If the Grateful Dead themselves are an acquired taste, I'm not sure what that makes the solo music of Jerry Garcia, other than a treat. Either way, the rush of Jerry Garcia vault releases over the past few years has produced a strange sensation. It's as if the Bearded One was just off in some other dimension continuing to make as much music as he did in his pre-junkie days. The albums (usually double and triple-disc sets) come one right after another, it seems — hardly enough time to process the last as its own historical entity before the next is beamed down into mailboxes and filesharing networks and is listened to, half-forgotten, and remembered (just like any Garcia show).
A perfect Buddhist (or, at least, still a Prankster), the other-dimensional Garcia exists in all times simultaneously. In the fall of 2005, we find him — on Jerry Garcia Collection, vol. 1: Legion of Mary — scattered throughout what earth-bound humans recognize as 1975, as well as — on Pure Jerry’s Warner Theater, March 18, 1978 — hanging out an individual eve three years later, with the Cats Under the Stars-era Jerry Garcia Band.
It's inaccurate to use terms like "outlet" and "hiatus" when discussing Garcia's work in the early and mid-1970s. Ostensibly, yes, the Legion of Mary was Garcia's place to play during the Dead's year off in 1975 — but that discounts the fact that he was working on the Dead's Blues For Allah, recording his own Compliments of…, and appearing on albums by Mickey Hart and Keith and Donna Godchaux. So, even though he gigged at least 60 times with the Legion of Mary between December 1974 and July 1975, there is a real casualness — of endless swathes of time stretched out before him — to his playing with the quintet, which included perma-bassist John Kahn, buddy Merl Saunders on keyboards, Elvis drummer Ron Tutt, and future Zero-hornman Martin Fierro.
"Jerry was like Ray Charles, man," Fierro is quoted in the liner notes. "He could play any style, and anything he touched had soul… whatever he played became Jerry's music." While it'd be hard to justify the "any style" claim beyond the invention of punk (though Garcia did croon "I Fought the Law" in the '90s), it all certainly did become Garcia's music. Legion of Mary is popularly known as Garcia's fusion outfit, though — based on the evidence here — that seems to be a misconception. While Fierro's horns are certainly present, much of the music is far less jazzy (and adventurous) than Garcia's Bill Kreutzmann-led Elvin Jones-inspired flights of fancy with the pre-"retirement" Dead.
The jams — on Garcia's usual smattering of R & B (Ray Charles' "Talkin' 'Bout You"), Dylan ("Tough Mama"), rock chestnut's (Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock") — are extended, of course. Nothing less than eight minutes for this crowd. "I’ll take a simple C to G and feel brand new about it," Garcia sings on Allan Toussaint’s "I’ll Take A Melody," which opens the second disc. He means it, too, even if the playing itself feels timeless. There is nothing urgent about the Legion of Mary, no sense of occasion other than playing music. Listening is occasionally a challenge because of this. But if you trust Garcia to "take a melody and see what [he] can do about it," then you’ll be just fine.
By contrast, touring on the release of Cats Under the Stars — the frequently overlooked Jerry Garcia Band studio album that’s probably better than the Dead’s own Shakedown Street, released the same year — the Garcia Band are in prime, purposeful form. Better, maybe. On board, besides Garcia and Kahn, are the Dead’s Keith and Donna Godchaux, drummer Buzz Buchanan, and veteran folkstress vocalist Maria Muldaur. Keith Godchaux is alive and well on his electric grand piano throughout — another contrast to the Dead of the same period — engaging Garcia with foil-like perfection on jams that threaten to spin off but rarely do.
The music is the extra-Dead Garcia's usual blend of R & B (a show-opening reading of Smokey Robinson's "I Second That Emotion" with a sweepingly authoritative entrance solo), Dylan (a lovely "Simple Twist of Fate"), reggae (a playfully jambandish rasta-jam in "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" that's kinda silly until Garcia's solo justifies its existence), and bluegrass (a positively Dead-like 19-minute "Lonesome and a Long Way From Home"). The original material is even better, with Garcia turning in a perfectly jazzy and concise between-verse solo during "Love in the Afternoon," and encoring with one of two known versions of Cats’ gorgeously hymn-like "Palm Sunday." (But who the hell is shouting for "Sunrise" before "Mystery Train"?)
There's still much to be mined — the Great American String Band (his post-Old and in the Way proto-Dawg outfit with David Grisman), acoustic with John Kahn in '82 (so beloved that one show from that tour was literally in all seven cars I rode in over the course of one Phish summer tour many years back), for starters — and plenty of Sunday afternoons left to listen.