Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders – Keystone Companions: Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings (2012)

Oscar and Felix, at least at first, had nothing on this odd couple. But there they were, Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders: stalwart friends, picking buddies and musical soulmates — whatever their obvious differences.

Garcia (who died in 1995) and Saunders (who passed in 2008) met while both were doing some late-1960s sessions work, and discovered an immediate chemistry — across a swath of music that included blues, jazz, folk, songbook favorites, R&B and bluegrass. Something clicked, like yin spooning with yang.

Jerry Garcia taught Saunders — then a well-paid, straight-laced side man — how to loosen up. Merl Saunders taught Garcia — the always-smiling centerpoint of counterculture darlings the Grateful Dead — how to play the old standards. They’d perform together throughout their careers, in bands called Legion of Mary and Reconstruction, behind Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty on his 1972 album Excalibur, during a trio of Dead shows, and on Saunders’ 1990 release Blues from the Rainforest. Saunders even helped Garcia recover his musical bearings after the guitarist roused from a diabetic coma in 1986.

You hear the big bang of all of those good feelings happen here, during a two-show gig at the Keystone Club in Berkeley, California, that evolved out of weekly jam sessions over the previous three years. This four-disc set, due September 25, 2012, from Fantasy, presents all of the songs Garcia and Saunders played over appearances on July 10-11, 1973, in order. Many of the tracks had been presented in various previous albums, most recently as Live at Keystone, Vols. 1-2 in 1988, but this new compilation also includes seven unheard songs, a 28-page booklet with vintage photographs, new liner notes from Grateful Dead expert David Gans, a poster and additional memorabilia.

Garcia and Saunders are joined by bassist John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt as they explore tracks from musical figures that range from Rodgers and Hart (two takes on “My Funny Valentine,” including a new version) and Junior Parker (“Mystery Train”), from Holland-Dozier-Holland (there’s also an additional previously unreleased take on “How Sweet It Is”) and Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Someday Baby”), from Jimmy Cliff (“The Harder They Come”) and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (“That’s All Right, Mama”).

In addition to “Positively 4th Street” (which includes some overdubbed mandolin by David Grisman, a bandmate in Garcia’s other side project, Old and In the Way), they also perform Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”

The band, in a bid to avoid the kind of attention that followed Jerry Garcia in his main job as guitarist in the Grateful Dead, didn’t even have a name. It quickly becomes clear that the music was so good, the atmosphere so loose and the times so memorable in and of themselves that, well, they simply didn’t need one.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso