Bob Dylan's songs are so universal and brilliant that they stand up to a seemingly endless variety of treatments. Jerry Garcia's Dylan interpretations, however, are unusual in that they pair two equally iconic and influential musical sensibilities. Garcia's fluid and imaginative guitar pushes up fresh, unexpected blossoms in Dylan's compositional garden, yet there's never any shock of the new; the two strains intermingle with ease and naturalness.
A new two-CD set provides a concentrated look at the long, if mostly indirect, collaboration between the folk-rock demigod and the king of improvisation. Of the fifteen selections, only four are by the Grateful Dead; the others come from several versions of Garcia's side projects, most often known simply as the Jerry Garcia Band. This being Jerry, all are from live concerts, and while the Dead was a famously inconsistent band, Garcia's inspiration rarely flagged when he played with his "solo" groups.
Several lineups from the 70s are represented on Disc One, including Legion of Mary (with Merl Saunders on organ) covering "The Wicked Messenger," one of the most interesting tracks. This long Hendrix-ish jam may have appealed to Garcia because of its repetitive but asymmetical structure, the sort of thing that frequently lofted him (both with and without the Grateful Dead) to extended flights of inspiration. The underrated "Tough Mama," which was a new song at the time, is the other unusual selection, a more complex but also irregularly timed number that inspires transcendent soloing.
The Dylan stalwarts "Positively 4th Street," "Simple Twist of Fate" and "I Shall Be Released" (the latter recorded in 1987, and less than 8 minutes long!) show Garcia at his best as an interpreter. While his vocals waver off-key as always and never match Dylan's in intensity, the songs' deeper meanings (most of these are among Dylan's sadder works) come through as clearly as the poet's sometimes confounding but always vivid lyrics will allow. With Jerry Garcia it was never so much about the singing anyway. The singing was merely the stained and tattered road map. The music and the feelings were the trip.