Jun 17, 2015

Garcia Album Review


If you have never seen Jerry Garcia playing guitar in front of a live audience, you might snicker when I say that he's probably the finest rock guitarist working in an American band today.
Listening to his lead work on any of the 7 currently available Grateful Dead albums won't give you much of a clue, either. The albums range from too-perfect to too-bad and the glimpses of the Garcia genius which glimmer through the album cuts are few. In fact, I suspect that the albums are purchased by Dead freaks who use them as a pale reminder of how good the band can be on the right night.
In an album released in January and in another released some months back, we have an opportunity to see Garcia working outside the context of the Dead. The results are not up to Garcia in concert, and in some ways they fail terribly, but they are fascinating experiments.
In his most recent work, an album simply titled "Garcia" on Warner Brothers label, Jerry joins drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Dead lyricist Bob Hunter in what amounts to a one-man tour de force. It's Jerry and his 16-track recorder against the world, with Kreutzmann sitting in because Jerry can't play drums. He plays everything else on the album and Hunter writes the words.
Although I expected experimentation on the solo Garcia album, I found a sound very similar to the Dead's - sort of the Dead without the Dead. On keyboards, Garcia double-tracks his own leads much like Pig Pen McKernan would. His bass work isn't as good as Phil Lesh's, but it's similar in style. Ditto on the rhythm guitar work.
On Side Two, the first cut, entitled "Late For Supper," uses electronic gadgetry and is out of context from the loose, country-style swinging on Side One. The 2 very different styles don't work together, and if you're not a fan, you might put the whole thing down as a 16-track ego trip.
The earlier Garcia album is experimentation in quite another direction. Titled "Hooterool?", it features Jerry with jazz keyboard man Howard Wales and his side men. The album came about as kind of a pleasant goof between Garcia and Wales, who have been known to stay up until all hours jamming in certain San Francisco Bay area saloons.
This is most definitely not a rock album, but it is an almost-unrecorded side of Garcia, the jazz guitarist playing some perfectly astral lines. Although Garcia's contribution is subtle on some cuts, his work on a piece called "One A.M. Approach" ought to put to rest that old bromide about rock musicians being helpless in the face of "real jazzmen."
Jerry is still tops on my list among American rock guitarists. In a musical world filled with hype and nonsense, too many value the wrong things among lead guitarists. They seem obsessed with technical aspects, the sheer fingering speed of a Johnny Winter or an Alvin Lee, and they never seem to ask, "Is that guy just showing off or does that particular speedy line really mean anything to that song or that particular lyric phrase?" Like most everything else in this world these days, technology seems to be valued over feeling.
Garcia avoids this kind of speedy showmanship, and the incredible power of his best work is astounding because of its understatement. Where three notes would overwhelm you, he'll hang one or two up there and they're the right ones. Like a good race driver, he wins the race at the slowest possible speed.

(by Jon Clemens, from the "Pop Scene" column, Salina Journal, 19 March 1972)

Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com


  1. Garcia had some fans among rock critics, and this writer was one of them, calling him "the finest rock guitarist working in an American band today." What's interesting is that he bases this entirely on live shows, and sees the Dead's available albums as all being disappointing, "a pale reminder of how good the band can be." He praises Garcia's understatement, picking the right notes, and lack of flashy overplaying.
    He doesn't say a lot about the two solo albums in this short review ("not up to Garcia in concert"), seeing them as interesting experiments, but he finds Hooteroll valuable because "it is an almost-unrecorded side of Garcia, the jazz guitarist playing some perfectly astral lines."

    He wrote in another article on Garcia's side trips the following year: "When Garcia is having a good night, his improvisational guitar work with the Grateful Dead is simply some of the best lead guitar in the rock business. Soaring and jazzy, his lines stand out starkly against the chunky, blues-tinged rock that the Dead play so well." (Salina Journal 7/22/73)

    Another fan was SF examiner critic Philip Elwood - in an Examiner article on the "Distinctive Variety of Musical Styles" in San Francisco clubs, Elwood briefly wrote about a February '72 show at the Bo Jangles by "the absolute end in jazz-rock-blues-Latin ensembles, the one led by Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders" -
    "Conga star Armanda Peraza was included in last night's Garcia-Saunders ensemble as was Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Garcia took chorus after chorus of exquisite guitar solos with Saunders vamping intelligently behind him on organ.
    No one anywhere compares with Garcia. His depth of feeling transcends all styles of musical performance.
    Bo Jangles patrons dig things rough and loud. The club-corner bandstand supercharges the instrumental sounds out into the jumbled seating arrangement and dancers clog every open space.
    But the feeling that Garcia transmits, with his colleagues' assistance, is magnificent artistry." (SF Examiner 2/12/72)

  2. Cameron Crowe wrote a brief positive review of Garcia's solo album for the San Diego Door (2/10/72) -

    "Right off, Dead freaks will love Jerry Garcia’s new solo album. The more naive will most probably not be so fortunate on being able to appreciate it. Why? It seems Garcia will never be predictable in what he does musically. Side one is typical Grateful Dead material in the Workingman’s Dead-American Beauty vein. The flip side is space music of the 2001 vein. It’s so odd that it comes off.
    About the first side. “Deal” is happily one of the most accessible pieces of country-rock-folk to have been released in a while. The instrumentation, done completely by Jerry Garcia with the help of Dead drummer, Billy Kreutzmann, is truly exhilarating. With Garcia’s knowledge of steel guitar, banjo, and lead and rhythm guitar, the arrangements are consistently full of chugging, gurgling, and bouncing riffs. “Bird Song”, “Sugaree”, and “Loser” follow the same pattern of excellence. Yes, there are the musical moments Dead freaks thrive on, and after the blockbuster first side, the second side could be blank and not detract from the conclusion of the album’s high quality.
    It’s hard to believe what Garcia himself said of the album, “It’ll just be me goofing around.”
    Side two opens with “Late for Supper” a collection of noises played at different speeds with moans, sighs, and television programs drifting in and out. In fact the whole second side pretty much follows that same formula, with yet another exception. “To Lay Me Down” is a nice, good-old-fashioned song.
    When most people think of space music, they think of the boring brand of music that you hear on the Tang commercials while the man talks about spacemen guzzling the drink in outer space. Side two is definitely not boring, the only true disappointment with it is that you can’t easily dance to it.
    The Grateful Dead are rock n’ rollers at heart, with a taste for the bizarre. Listen to Grateful Dead [the album] for their rock n’ roll side, and Garcia for that taste for the bizarre."

  3. The International Times (in London) ran a very brief review of Garcia in their 2/24/72 issue:
    "You dug it on "American Beauty" and on some of "New Riders of the Purple Sage." Redig it now. Lots o' guitar, lots o' country lament music, a bit of psychedelic but, sadly, not much funk. It depends if you care or not."