As the years accumulate since the passing of American music icon Jerry Garcia, performance recordings long lost have continued to reemerge. The guitarist, singer and songwriter’s roots were deeper than his rock ‘n’ roll project Grateful Dead. He was known and respected in Palo Alto, California as a folk guru who played regularly with the best of the local scene. When his jug band turned blues bar-burner made a few personnel adjustments to become the Grateful Dead he was full time committed to that developing project. Years down the road in 1973, Garcia was drained from nonstop touring and weary of how huge Grateful Dead had grown. He somewhat resented being “Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.” That year he would link up with a group of renowned bluegrass and folk musicians to form Old & In The Way. While this group toured all-too-briefly and played limited gigs mostly in the western U.S., their impact was huge and contextualized Garcia’s love for traditional folk and bluegrass for newer fans of his music.
As the seventies morphed into the eighties, the Dead were touring heavier than ever. While Garcia was deeply committed to Grateful Dead music, his health and spirit began to weaken in 1986 and he fell into a diabetic coma that almost took his life. Jerry’s road to recovery was a wearisome challenge that he would triumphantly overcome. Garcia relearned his rapid finger work and spent months practicing amongst encouraging old friends such as old pal/organist for Legion of Mary, Merl Saunders. And indeed 1987 saw Garcia return to full time performance, displaying more vitality and emotion than 80s heads had ever seen from him. Further than the glorious return of Grateful Dead was Garcia’s commitment to his respective band. Jerry Garcia band had gone through many different lineups of brilliant players and by the mid eighties Jerry had proudly and comfortably settled with John Kahn (bass, as always), Melvin Seals (keyboards and organ), David Kemper (drums), Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones (backup and lead vocals.) The band was a tribute to the vast genres that had influenced the young Garcia. Soul, Motown, funk, folk, pop, rock.
The revelation that fully revitalized Garcia’s musical career was his reconnection with his old Palo Alto bluegrass buddies to create the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band. Guitarist David Nelson hadn’t played onstage with Jerry since the early seventies in New Riders of the Purple Sage. Multi string-slinger Sandy Rothman and fiddler Kenny Kosek hadn’t collaborated with Garcia since Palo Alto in the mid 60s. When Bill Graham gathered these old friends in a celebration of Garcia’s miraculous recovery the musical results were stunning. David Nelson recalled Jerry remembered more of the music and words than any of them. At Grahams behest, Jerry began thinking of unusual ways to get the acoustic band onstage in intimate confines. The two of them landed on a groundbreaking concept that had never been approached by a rock artist before. Play a classic Broadway Manhattan theatre with both matinee and late performances. But bigger than that he wanted to feature his electric band along with his exciting new acoustic revival band. The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City would be site of a dazzling four-night acoustic/electric double bill Jerry Garcia Band.
Years ago the Pure Jerry series put out two separate releases to honor the Lunt-Fontanne Broadway 1987 run, and now the Garcia estate has began releasing as complete as possible, show-by-show, the full Broadway 1987 Jerry Garcia Band(s) run. The first release in the series, fittingly named “Act One”, contains three of four sets performed on October 28th, the opening night of the run. The first electric set is missing. A caveat introduction in the liner notes give the listener a forewarning that this music was never intended for release. The union boss for the Broadway theatre had ZERO tolerance for recording inside the theatre and Garcia’s sound techs had to hide their brand new DAT recorder from him. What remain are two acoustic sets and an electric set. The Act One release by default focuses on the marvelous Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band.
The first two discs are packed with varied American traditional songs from folk, bluegrass, blues, and spiritual. “Deep Elem Blues” got its revival with Grateful Dead in their brief 1980 stint with returning to the acoustic set format. It fittingly opens the matinee show with cheers from the irrepressible New York City crowd in the background. Some others he had covered in the past with Old & In The Way such as “Drifting Too Far From The Shore” while “I’ve Been All Around This World” and “Rosa Lee McFall” were familiar with Heads who had attended those 1980 Dead acoustic sets. Particularly notable about these sets were not only the visible and audible chemistry between Garcia and the band, but also his unguarded willingness to have fun with an engage his audience. And as many would note, Garcia encouraged Nelson to take on numerous of lead solos and Sandy Rothman particularly stood as for his bright musicianship, often taking the lead reins. Other favorites are the long lost “Ballad of Casey Jones” played sparingly in 1970 by the Dead mainly at the Fillmore East, the Nelson led “Diamond Joe”, and the jaunty closer for both acoustic sets “Ragged But Right.”
Jerry had legitimized rock as a canonical part of Americana. The electric set displays the music that Jerry’s band had accumulated in his vast electric incarnations. The chemistry and ease between these players was previously marveled at and these 1987 concerts display some of the finest Garcia Band. Musical comrade Melvin Seals colored Garcia’s melodic chording with the powerful backing of organ work reminiscent of the souring soul of church music. Jackie and Gloria were church choir ladies and knew little of the music of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison or whomever Garcia chose to honor night to night. Their separation from that world makes the music that much more authentic, with no predisposed idea on how to approach.
Of course his trusty copilot John Kahn, joined also during the electric sets as he always would. Highlights from the electric set include a passionate rendering of Dylan’s “Forever Young,” the fine Garcia/Robert Hunter original “Run For The Roses” and the recently added cover of Chicano rockers Los Lobos’ “Evangeline.” “Gomorrah” from the Cat’s Under The Stars album displays the interlocked soul of Seals, LaBranch, and Jones at their finest. The jam out of Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” was a fitting climax for the distinctly different four set evening with Garcia.
The beautifully packaged Act One, October 28th, 1987 features liner notes from head roadie Steve Parish and Grateful Dead publicist/historian Dennis McNally. All agree that these Lunt-Fontanne Broadway shows were a spectacle inside and outside the theatre as the Deadheads ascended on midtown Manhattan for the band’s first and only Broadway run. It was a blissful moment in Garcia’s later life that clearly lifted his spirits and musicianship to higher than ever before. Get ahold of this music and share in the celebration. Stay tuned for more music from this Broadway 87’ run.