Saturday, November 12, 2011

I'm Gonna Live the Life I Love

Far out, man
From 1971 through mid '75 Jerry Garcia played regularly with Bay Area keyboard player and bandleader Merl Saunders whenever he wasn't gigging with the Grateful Dead. By early 1974 sax player Martin Fierro was a regular member of the group, which was just billed as Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders. At the end of the year the incredible drummer Ron Tutt joined the band. This lineup toured under the inscrutable moniker Legion of Mary through July of '75, reaching a fever pitch of intensity and performance quality before abruptly dissolving. The music on this website is taken from the lineup with Martin, 1974-75, to provide continuity and narrow the scope of the project.
The download links are above, under the header. The setlist is, obviously, immediately below. A fair amount of additional information is available further down, or in the links over to the right ~~>. I intend to expand both the music and the information over the next month or so, but no promises. Life has a way of interfering.

01(I'm A) Road RunnerGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 8-24-74
02Finders KeepersKeystone, Berkeley CA 5-21-75
03Are You Lonely For Me, BabyKeystone, Berkeley CA 2-16-74
04(I Feel Like) DynamiteOriental Theater, Milwaukee, WI 4-19-75
05I Second That EmotionLion's Share, San Anselmo CA 6-4-74
06Last Train From Poor ValleyOrpheum Theater, Boston, MA 4-6-75 Late Show
07It's Too LateGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 7-4-75
08Just Kissed My BabyGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 11-28-74
09The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie DownKeystone, Berkeley CA 3-1-75
10Mystery TrainMasonic Temple, Scranton PA 4-12-75 Late show
11ThinkKeystone, Berkeley CA 1-17-74
12I'll Take a MelodyGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 5-15-75
13Boogie On Reggae WomanKeystone, Berkeley CA 7-22-74
14Every Word You SayGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 7-4-75
15It Ain't No UseKeystone, Berkeley CA 3-9-74
16Mississippi MoonCapitol City Theater, Madison, WI 4-20-75
17That's Alright MamaGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 7-4-75
18Wicked MessengerOriental Theater, Milwaukee, WI 4-19-75
19That's What Love Will Make You DoKeystone, Berkeley CA 5-21-75
20Let it RockMasonic Temple, Scranton PA 4-12-75 Late show
21Expressway (To Your Heart)Lion's Share, San Anselmo CA 6-4-74
22Sitting In LimboGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 8-24-74
23He Ain't Give You NoneKeystone, Berkeley CA 11-27-74
24You Can Leave Your Hat OnBottom Line, NYC 4-9-75
25Tough MamaGreat American Music Hall SF, CA 7-4-75
26Going, Going, GoneMasonic Temple, Scranton PA 4-12-75 Late show
27Cucumber SlumberKeystone, Berkeley CA 7-22-74
28The Harder They ComeKeystone, Berkeley CA 5-21-75
29How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)Keystone, Berkeley CA 2-16-74

The Songs: Gotcha Covered

They say that my love is wrong
The material played by these lineups was all cover tunes. No Grateful Dead originals were performed and none of the later JGB original material had yet been debuted. I plan on adding a lot more detail about each song: who it’s by, links to the original version etc. I have that stuff about half done, we’ll see if I get to it. So I'm not gonna write about any of them specifically now. There are a lot of soul and R&B covers from the well known to the very obscure, some reggae and classic blues tunes, Dylan and Van Morrison tracks, and a wildly diverse array of other songs. One of the more interesting subplots is how many of the tunes they played were very current at the time of these recordings.

This is not an unbiased production and isn't intended as an accurate historical representation of the band as a whole. These are my favorite versions of my favorite songs of the era, it's a mix I made for my own listening and that’s that. That means blues tunes and Merl originals are under-represented, and the Jazz Odyssey tunes are completely absent from this first, A-list mix. More blues tunes, and some of the soul-jazz style Merl originals, will come out in the “part 2, outtakes and alternate versions” mix which is forthcoming. It's another 20 tracks or so, about half songs omitted from this first release, and the rest are alternate versions of tracks represented here. 

Jazz Odyssey, baby
Lastly, I’ll eventually upload 10 songs or so of the Jazz Odyssey style jams, in order to properly represent the era. In case you don't know what I mean, most of the Martin era shows had at least one extended jazz tune per set or so, mostly covers from the likes of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Alice Coltrane or a handful of Fierro originals.  I'm absolutely a jazz lover, and for that reason I find those tracks to be for the most part insufferably tedious in their mediocrity when measured without a curve on a real jazz grading scale. So it might take me a minute to get to them and they’ll probably be accompanied by a lengthy missive on their lack of merit when they do come out. 

I'm not claiming this to be any kind of definitive "best-of" mix. The criteria for that are subjective enough that I'm skeptical of that idea and it just seems like a lot of work. I do think it's pretty good. I listened to all the soundboard tapes from this era, which was super fun, and picked the songs I liked. I found anywhere from a few to several great versions of some songs, and for those I just kept running through 'em until I could pick a favorite. The audio quality of the recordings played a major tiebreaker role in a lot of those calls. As I mentioned above I'm going to upload a dozen or so of these alternate versions before long; some of them are spectacular. If you think you know a better version of one of these tracks,I'd love to hear about it. Leave details in comments, and preferably a link of some kind, a torrent or a direct upload or whatever works.

A minor caveat or two for the sensitive types
Stop me before I skronk again
As a matter of fair warning, I feel compelled to mention that both Merl and Martin occasionally transgressed the generally accepted boundaries of musical good taste, each in their own specific ways. Martin unleashes his trademark short-but-intense barrages of squealing honkery in these versions Mystery Train, It Ain’t No Use and That’s What Love Will Make You Do. Merl croaks out a vocal part in (I Feel Like) Dynamite, Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Can Leave Your Hat On. All these performances are so great otherwise I can’t imagine being really bothered by these flaws, if you even see them that way, but at least now you know going in. 

 Both musicians’ strengths greatly outweigh their flaws, at least in this context. The quality and frequency of Martin Fierro’s really high moments may be a revelation to some listeners. Merl wasn’t a notable soloist; his leads tended to be circular, wandering, or linear; not bad, but usually not building or developing too much either. But his beautifully warm sound and joyous interplay with Garcia define this band as much as any other factor.

The Sources: 70s Soundboard Smorgasbord

Merl's feelin' it.
The circulating recordings from the era vary widely in quality, in terms of analog hiss from multiple tape generations, instrument imbalance in the original recordings, reel-flip dropouts, and occasional distortion. The sources I chose were all recorded direct from the live soundboard feed to a reel-to-reel master. The number of subsequent analog generations ranges from zero (master direct to digital) to two; I didn’t use any sources with a longer analog lineage than that. As with all direct soundboard feed recordings, the sound on tape simply records exactly what was going through the PA. In smaller venues such as these, players (like Garcia) who ran with very high onstage amp volume didn’t need to be as loud in the PA, so they're lower on tape. Jerry's not too quiet in any of the tracks I chose, but the overall instrument balance isn't always perfect, and sometimes it fluctuates a bit mid-song.  The other main variable in the original recording is the stereo imaging. Some tapes have a beautifully distributed, natural sound; others are nearly mono.

As I was putting this together I did minimal editing: fade-ins and -outs, normalization (making the levels match more closely), and a couple splices (see below) and that's it - no eq or other processing was applied. There shouldn’t be any serious tape or recording flaws evident in the sources I used, unless you're unrealistically picky when it comes to 35+ year old analog-master recordings; if there are I’d like to hear about them. These are taken from the high end of the spectrum: they’re not all perfect, but some are, and none should be hard on the ears. The hissiest recording is 4-20-75 Madison, which is most evident in Mississippi Moon. Distortion is noticeable, but not hopefully not distracting, in the magnificent He Ain’t Give You None and in the latter vocal section of Boogie On Reggae Woman. There are cleanly spliced dropouts in Harder They Come and Let It Rock. That’s about it. If you hear something egregious that I missed, please let me know.

Chut up!
Wondering where the flac files are? Get over it, Poindexter. You can convert the alacs. If you're a big enough lossless geek to care, you obviously already have the software for it. Right? Right.

 The existence of a decent number of low-analog-generation, cleanly digitized, soundboard recordings (and their relatively easy availability for internet download) is due to years of tireless effort on the part of a handful of dedicated, unpaid fans. You know who you are. Thanks for everything! I listened to every publicly circulating soundboard tape from 1974 and the first 7 months of ‘75 in the process of making this mix and it was an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. 

If you really like this stuff a lot, you should know that there are also a fair number of audience recordings from this era circulating. Without getting into the often contentious debate about the listenability of these tapes, it’s safe to say they don’t lend themselves to this kind of mix, since the audio characteristics vary so widely between them. So I omitted them completely and make no apology for it, but if you find yourself drawn to this era, you should consider downloading a few of them and making up your own mind. 

The Bands: Garcia/Saunders and the Legion of Mary

That's so Merl!
It all started when Garcia started sitting in with Merl Saunders and his ever-shifting group of collaborators. Jerry started coming around in ‘71, and by ‘72 he was showing up semi-regularly to play with Merl’s group. People came and went. Tom Fogerty played pretty bad rhythm guitar with them off and on for a few years, and there was this apparently insane singer named Sarah Fulcher who for some reason was allowed to come onstage and make Donna Godchaux sound like Aretha Franklin by comparison.  Sax and flute player Martin Fierro was also part of Merl’s rotating cast of collaborators, and in 1973 Martin performed on the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood album and as part of the band’s remarkably unremarkable September ‘73 tour. By early 1974 he was a regular part of the Garcia-Saunders lineup and remained until the end of the band’s run in the summer of ‘75.

Hey Meester
    Three different drummers manned the kit during this period. From the start of ‘74 through summer of that year, it was Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who was at the absolute height of his powers. In sometime around the start of fall ‘74, around the time the Dead went on hiatus, veteran drummer Paul Humphrey came on board. Humphrey is a fantastic player and an underrated asset to the band; he was the drummer on the historical Marvin Gaye masterpiece album What’s Goin’ On, in the middle of a career that went from Mel Brown, Wes Montgomery and Charles Mingus in the 60s to Steely Dan, Quincy Jones and Lawrence Welk (!) among others in the 70s. But the secret weapon, the king of Jerry-sideman drummers, the ultimate rhythm hookup is my official man-crush Ron Tutt, who came on at the end of ‘74. A veteran of Elvis Presley’s asskicking live “TCB Band”, Tutt was so good the whole band immediately all saw Jesus, Joseph and the Virgin Mother the first time they played together, sparking the immediate adoption of the new “Legion of Mary” band name. Yes, that’s why they took on a band name and that one in particular. You always wondered and now you know. You’re welcome.

    Seriously, Ronn Tutt was fucking killer. You think I’m kidding about the man-crush? Listen to this guy on the ‘75 Legion stuff.  He’s my little puddin’ pop sweetie pie.The way he works with Jerry is seriously nuts; the guy was staggeringly good and muy simpatico with Jerry on a musical level. He kept playing with Jerry in the Garcia Band after the end of the Garcia-Saunders era, until mid 1977.

    All the filesets these tracks are taken from list John Kahn as the bass player, and for most of them that’s true. But for some of the ‘74 shows it isn’t; it’s Merl Saunders’ son, Tony Saunders on bass. Did you know Tony Saunders is a badass bass player with a huge discography? He is and he does. And if you listen to the tracks from 6-4-74 and 7-22-74 you’ll hear what he sounds like: he’s a thumping, popping, sliding jazz-funk-soul bassist who sounds 100% completely different from John Kahn’s lugubrious signature style. Despite the labelling on the existing filesets, if you listen to these tracks and compare them to the ones that are definitely Kahn, for instance all the ‘75 stuff, I’m sure you’ll hear the difference.

Did I mention Jerry Garcia is in this band?

Golden Gate Park
Jerry’s at the top of his game here. The. Top. I don’t see how that could be disputed in a musically meaningful way. You may prefer some earlier or later style, but in terms of pure technique, stylistic diversity, improvisational creativity, and soulful clarity of expression you simply can’t beat 1974-75 vintage Garcia. Hilariously, course I ‘m writing this while listening to one of his weaker moments that made it into the mix, a weak and unfocused series of hackish lines through the first part of the otherwise superb Expressway. But if you listen you’ll see what I mean about the quality and diversity of his musicianship in this period. There are fast intricate solos, slow expressive melodic solos, digressive and intelligent jazzy solos, pure classic blues solos, sublime slide solos, conversational solos developed out of duets with other players, a couple really unusual swingy rhythmic solos, carefully constructed solos that build to a massive peak and were developed over dozens of versions, electrified blasts of heavy Django style shredding, and...and I’m not even close to done thinking of different examples but I bet you’re as tired of reading this as I am of writing it.

.Solos aside - did I mention those? - Garcia was also playing a lot of punchy, swinging rhythm guitar parts as well, which are almost as fun to hear as the leads because of course he was really good at it and seems to have been having a blast. (I Feel Like) Dynamite is maybe my favorite example here. Even more than in later JGB years he was really into it in these days, which I think was due to a few things: his personal style at the time, the funky/soulful material, and the fact that Martin and Merl stepped out front more than the later keyboard players. His voice was also still quite good, strong and soulful and clear, and this collection includes more than a few of my alltime favorite Jerry vocal performances to go along with the deluge of great guitar work and fine ensemble playing.