More Ragged But Right
Here is Randy Ray’s take on the new Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band release…
Ragged But Right completes the portrait that began with the 1988 release Almost Acoustic, and continued with the 2004 release of the shows from 10/31/87. Yes, shows should be plural. Garcia led his bands through a series of acoustic and electric sets during a rather fruitful period in the Dead leader’s life after a coma nearly terminated it in 1986.
Yes, bands should be plural, as well, as Garcia showcased two bands in this format—one to highlight his acoustic roots, and the electric to offer different sonic rhythmic colors, albeit always within the same confident and inspired Jerry Garcia framework.
And confident is the key word here, as the guitarist returns to his bluegrass/jugband/folk roots with some rather inspired music that is uplifting, filled with soul, and energetic. Garcia isn’t working his way through old Grateful Dead warhorses. He is presenting music that had always lit a fire in his belly, and pushed his fingers along his guitar. His voice is also in fine form as he descends and ascends the octave ladder to narrow his sights on visions that have a timeless mobility while offering Garcia the room to breathe.
Helping Garcia, of course, was an excellent acoustic band which featured his old friend and compadre-in-musical arms David Nelson on guitar and vocals, who had played with Garcia in an acoustic format in the early pre-Warlocks/Dead 1960s era, John Kahn on string band, who had been a longtime member of the Jerry Garcia Band on electric bass, Kenny Kosek on fiddle, David Kemper on snare drum, and Sandy Rothman on mandolin, dobro, banjo, and vocals. Rothman is also of importance, since he produced the original Almost Acoustic sessions and wrote its liner notes, while doing the same some 23 years later for the Rugged But Right release.
The majority of the material was recorded at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne, with a few songs taped at Los Angeles’ Wiltern, and San Francisco’s Warfield Theatres. A hearty note must be made that CD mastering engineer Joe Gastwirt has performed his magic on the original Almost Acoustic and that disc has now been re-mastered and re-released, and can be purchased in a bundle with Ragged But Right. The former is a classic of its kind with many warm chestnuts finding new life within the Garcia acoustic setting—from an engaging “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to a fervent reading of “I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” to a lively take on “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie.”
The latter features Garcia playfully chastising the New York crowd for skipping out on work to catch a rather memorable afternoon set, which took place over a series of late October 1987 dates. The acoustic band is helmed by the reinvigorated Garcia on masterful readings of “I Ain’t Never,” “Drifting With the Tide,” “Two Soldiers,” “Goodnight Irene,” on an arrangement he learned from the great New Orleans pianist James Booker, during his JGB stint in the late 70s, a great Garcia vocal take on “It’s a Long, Long Way to the Top of the World,” and a sweet and warm version of “Turtle Dove.” Sweet and warm are two more key words here as Garcia shows a grounded calm
and rich vitality, firmly rooted in the soil of songs that had been around forever, but always seemed to come alive anew whenever the Dead leader crafted them as his own. And it certainly helped that he had like-minded players as gifted as Nelson, Rothman, and company to share that spirit, that sense that Jerry Garcia, despite all of his health issues—self-induced, or otherwise—was going to live on in 1987, just fine thankyouverymuch. The Man has, and you hear that ageless, immortal beauty on this rather sublime release.