Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia
Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings
BluesWax Rating: 8 out of 10
No Parallel Between These Tracks and the Grateful Dead!
Recorded live on July 10 and 11, 1973, at the Keystone Club in Berkeley, California, these four discs capture the mystical/musical kinship between Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia. For those of us who love bonus tracks there are seven previously unreleased tracks. The solid hard-cardboard case is about one inch in height, plus there’s a twenty-eight-page, high-gloss booklet featuring vintage photos with liner notes by Deadhead guru David Gans. Each disc is packaged in a foldout digipack, and if that’s not enough there’s a poster, coaster, button, and a small notebook that I originally suspected were rolling papers. Not!
As usual John Kahn plays bass as he did on most of Jerry’s side projects. Bill Vitt is on drums, Saunders on vocals and various keys, plus Jerry’s signature guitar and vocals. David Grisman sits in on mandolin for Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street.” All in all there are twenty-four tracks included, most of them chunky time-wise which should surprise no one.
This band is not like the Grateful Dead. Let me repeat: this band is not Grateful Dead-like music. This jazzy band is roots oriented; they cover tunes by Chuck Willis, Junior Parker, Smokey Robinson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Cliff, Don Nix, Dan Penn, Arthur Crudup, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. This should give you a good idea about the rootsy sounds created and the genre territories covered. There are also two tunes that Saunders co-wrote and none by Garcia, which is an interesting tidbit. The birth of this band started at the long-defunct Matrix Club in San Francisco where they typically jammed weekly when Jerry was on not on the road with the Grateful Dead.
Seventeen of twenty-four tracks were previously released as a double-LP, and later on CD, originally recorded by longtime Dead associates Betty Cantor and Rex Jackson. Production credits are equally dispersed amongst the four main musicians. So if you own previous versions of this recording, the only reason to grab yourself a copy is for the seven bonus tracks, and the unique packaging. But if you ask me, the bonus tracks alone are worth it, and the price tag is very reasonable. There’s just not enough Merl-Jerry commercial product for me to ingest and I am always on the prowl looking for more.
I’ve always felt the Saunders brought out and extracted a different side of Garcia, a side that was more jazz-oriented. Blues and rhythm and blues surfaced readily, and the deep grooves (especially from Saunders B3) allowed Garcia alternate landscapes to explore. Additionally; within the Dead’s universe there was far more pressure and egos to deal with. With Merl it seemed obvious that the musical state-of-affairs were more casual, yet no intensity is lost. The tunes on these four CDs are not analogous to the Grateful Dead. Again, this is not Grateful Dead-like music. Just turn it on, turn it up, and be ready to explore and groove. No lava lamp or light show is required. Just straight-up music that doesn’t take you to outer space nor does it gets whacked out.
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
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