Saturday, November 12, 2011

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.

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