Guest Reviewer Fumo Verde
Legion of Mary played together at over 60 shows from December 1974 through July 1975. All the selections from this live set have been collected from seven different shows and have been previously unissued.
With Garcia’s name at the front, you’re thinking Dead-offshoot, or maybe he’s just sitting in, but it’s not that at all, far from it–but not that far. This album finds Garcia in an element you may never have imaged him in: Jazz/Blues. It was a big leap for a man so well known for creating melodic and astral-like guitar riffs that carried us off to sunshine daydreams with sugar magnolias, yet as the leader of Legion of Mary, Garcia turns his gentle strokes into blues-withering howls that echo through your soul on an album that fits well on any shelf in your music library, whether R&B, Jazz, Blues or even the Grateful Dead section.
The talented musicians that round out the quintet are each a star in his own right, such as drummer Ron Tutt, who toured with Elvis back when leather-studded karate suits were the norm. Keyboardist Merl Saunders, who worked with Oscar Brown, Dinah Washington and Miles Davis, contributes more than just the hip and haunting cries from his Hammond B-3, for his years of experience alone could lead a band of gypsies. A key element in the Legion of Mary is that sound known all too well, the sound of soul music itself, the saxophone, which is played by Martin Fierro, whose credits include playing with Fats Domino and Little Richard. These men form an R&B section that can not only play the blues, but also can roam through a song such as “I Second That Emotion” or “Last Train from Poor Valley” and make it seem like a journey to the deepest part of your being.
As for Garcia, his voice reaches deep into the heart of the lyrics and he effortlessly makes them his own, while letting the rest of the band tell the story musically with improv so well known by jazz artists alike. Although there are Dead-like undertones that creep their way in songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, if you listen closely, you can hear the whispers of history from the other band members. All this wisdom and talent mix together on stage, and yes, these are live shows, which gives it an energy all of its own, creating a unique experience that both Blues fans and Deadheads will enjoy.
“Tough Mama,” by Bob Dylan, leads off the event and immediately a Deadhead would feel at home with Garcia’s strolling-along cord riffs. In the background, the B-3 drifts you off into a more folksy-southern blues while the sax creeps in to gently add some soul. Following up the opener is “That’s A Touch I Like” by Jesse Winchester. This is where Jerry turns his signature sound into Rhythm & Blues grooves. This song is definitely more jazz-out than Garcia has ever been before. “”Since I Lost My Baby” by Smokey Robinson and Warren Moore becomes an instrumental jam that takes you on a sweet Mississippi River boat ride, melding the sounds of blues from Chicago and Memphis with the jazz of St. Louis and New Orleans.
Disc two is filled with many winners as well, such as “Let It Rock” by Chuck Berry, which is led in by a thumping bass by John Kahn that lets you know there’s going to be more blues in your step now. Although the track info doesn’t state it, this near 14-minute tune draws you deep into its southern soulful jam. Another unstated jam is “Neighbor, Neighbor”, a Cajun call out to Alton Joseph Valler, yet Zydeco isn’t even present. This classic is a blend of the B-3, Garcia’s folk/blues guitar and Fierro’s sax meshed with a bass and drumbeat that holds the rhythm to the core. Although these two mentioned songs have lyrics, the improv of the different genres collaborate together to give a perspective that these artists were going for back in 1975.
Legion of Mary is a testament to musicians who want to push their artistic limitations and see what else lies beyond by trying new ideas, by innovating and improvising, and by bringing it all back home into one reality. It’s what jazz is about, it’s what the blues are about, and it’s about what Jerry and the Grateful Dead were about, so it’s no surprise that this is what the Legion of Mary are about.