In July of 1973, Jerry Garcia and keyboardist Merl Saunders played a legendary two-day concert at the Keystone in Berkeley, CA. Over the years, parts of this concert have been released on vinyl and on disc, including a double-disc set earlier this year. But the whole concert has never been available in anything other than bootleg versions until now.
The boxed set of Keystone Companions brings the entire concert, over four hours of live music, to listeners in the order they were performed. It has been remastered, so the sound is crystal clear. It captures Garcia at what many consider to have been his creative peak, performing with his great friend, Merl Saunders and covering the gamut of musical sounds, including jazz, reggae, blues, country, Motown, and rockabilly.
The excitement begins even before you insert the first disc into the player, though, as the set includes some little extras for fans, including a coaster, a pin, a poster, a scratchbook (a tiny notebook the size of a matchbook), and an informative booklet with great photos.
But the most important thing is the music. It’s live and it’s experimental, so sometimes the quality is not consistent but much of this set is brilliant. To provide every song from both sets, four songs do appear twice, but they are worth listening to twice anyway.
Among the highlights for this reviewer are the two Dylan numbers, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and “Positively 4th Street,” which are nicely rendered and suited to Garcia’s voice. David Grisman added some amazing mandolin to “Positively 4th Street” in the studio during the original mixing, according to the included booklet.
On disc one, I also love “It’s Too Late, She’s Gone” and “Mystery Train.” Disc two contains two great, soulful versions of Motown tunes, “I Second That Emotion” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” (which was previously unreleased).
Disc three standouts include “One Kind Favor,” the best of the two performances of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” (which is another previously unreleased number, one that is bound to make you want to get up and dance), a great, rocking “That’s Alright, Mama.” There’s also a tasty take on “Money Honey.” This disc is my favorite of the four.
Disc four has a strong, heartfelt version of “Someday Baby,” (previously unreleased), the evocative “Like a Road Leading Home,” and the best of the two versions of the instrumental “Merl’s Tune,” also not available before.
This box set will be a treasure for any fan of Jerry Garcia or Merl Saunders and should find them new fans among younger followers of Americana music.