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.
The only shortcoming on Disc One is the seventeen-minute version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” I always liked when the Dead played the song, but this Garcia Band rendition – with Keith and Donna Godchaux – put me right to sleep. Perhaps a true Head could appreciate this extremely slow ramble, but I couldn’t. Or maybe, as with so many things Jerry, you just had to be there. When I listen to this disc in the future I’ll probably be skipping over “Knockin'” the way one of my college Deadhead friends carefully spliced out all the Keith Godchaux piano solos from his bootleg tapes. (True story!)
Disc Two begins with a fourteen-minute “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and it has a masterpiece of a guitar solo. This is a prime example of Jerry transforming a short, to-the-point song with a standard structure into a magnum opus. “She Belongs To Me,” from a 1985 Grateful Dead concert, shows the band in top form, and even “Forever Young,” a song I’ve never liked, shines in the Garcia Band’s slow gospel treatment: though Jerry’s voice isn’t quite up to some of the notes he reaches for, you can tell his heart is in it. “Tangled Up In Blue” is exquisite, and the gloomy, dirge-like “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” recorded just a couple of years before Garcia’s death, seems, in hindsight, full of presentiments of doom.
The last three tracks are all late-period Grateful Dead. In the latest, “Visions of Johanna,” from 1995, Garcia’s voice sounds very much that of an old man as he speaks or shouts, Dylan-like, the enigmatic lyrics. Here the two sensibilities converge most distinctly.
Garcia and Dead completists will certainly want this collection. It has excellent sound quality, very nice packaging, and detailed liner notes. For the curious, it’s also a good sampling of what the whole Jerry Garcia/Grateful Dead phenomenon was – and is – all about.