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Published: 2005/11/13
by Pat Buzby

Garcia Plays Dylan – Jerry Garcia

Rhino 73263

Lately even the most devoted Deadheads might be straining to find shelf space for more Dead vault releases, but the Garcia solo archive hasn’t been so thoroughly explored. Since Garcia channeled most of his songwriting into the Dead, what better way to shoot for a solo-Jerry overview than to put together two CDs of his Dylan covers? The two of them were mutual fans, and both had the kind of talent which still makes otherwise sane people want to check into every day’s musical activity of theirs.

Granted, there has already been a Dead-play-Dylan compilation, 2002’s Postcards of the Hanging. That CD, though, had a bit much of Weir and Lesh’s 80’s brand of arena-rock vocalizing to give a convincing portrait of the band at its best. With Garcia front and center for an entire set, though, we can hear how Dylan’s work resonated with one man in changing ways.

Spanning 1973 to 1995, this is both a two-CD set and something of a two-act play. Kicking off in 1973 with Merl Saunders and moving through Legion of Mary and the early Jerry Garcia Band lineups, the first disc gives us the confident, exuberant young Jerry, throwing in extra guitar choruses and vocal shouts because he can. Granted, even in this era he had a taste for slow songs and broken-down characters: the protagonist of his “Positively 4th Street” seems truly hurt rather than aggressive in the manner of the 1965 Dylan, and the 17-minute crawl through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” evokes a near-death feeling perhaps well enough to merit a caution to the uncommitted. However, listen to him work through “Tough Mama” (which may be the most Garcia-esque chord progression Dylan ever penned) or fan on “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and there’s little doubt that the bleak moments are more drama than signals of danger.

Flash ahead to the mid-80’s, though, and suddenly the voice is craggier, the fast tunes rarer and the song selection more firmly oriented towards weary wisdom. Granted, Garcia could pick himself up enough to pull out a frisky “Tangled Up In Blue” or even an out-and-out party tune like “The Mighty Quinn,” and he recaptures his impish side on the July 8th, 1995 “Visions Of Johanna,” one of the few bright moments of that sad final Dead tour. (The first half of this set steers clear of the Dead, but by the 90’s Dylan tunes tended to be one of the few things in the Dead’s repertoire which could make Garcia bring his game.) Still, it seems fitting that the most memorable tune of the disc is 1993’s “Se” whose dark tones were all too fitting for Garcia’s life at this point.

Carefully selected, Ladder To The Stars provokes only a few quibbles. Ideally, the 1980 “When I Paint My Masterpiece” should have swapped places with the 1987 “I Shall Be Released” (in which Garcia suddenly seems 50 pounds heavier after the preceding 1978 “Simple Twist Of Fate”) so that the two acts could each occupy one disc, but CD lengths precluded it. And this thought may get me in trouble with many of the hardcores out there, but perhaps some of the instrumental portions (Ozzie Ahlers’s synth solo on “Masterpiece,” for instance) don’t enhance the mood of the lyrics all that much, and could have been edited out.

Oh well — a Garcia CD without a few discursive moments would be like a Dylan show with no slurred words or under rehearsed sidemen. For now, though, Ladder To The Stars comes as close as any set can to saying something new about these two men.

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