GarciaLive Volume 12: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders: January 23rd, 1973

GarciaLive Volume 13: Jerry Garcia Band: September 16th, 1989

Volumes 12 and 13 of the ongoing GarciaLive series offer absorbing contrasts and similarities.  The 12th installment comes from an informal 1973 show at the Boarding House in San Francisco (taped by Betty Cantor and Rex Jackson); lucky 13 draws on a 1989 Jerry Garcia Band tour performance.  Though the pair- a club date in Garcia’s backyard and a theatre show outside Chicago- share the baseline appeal of new releases excavated from the Garcia concert archive, both uniquely have a focal point other than Jerry.

The ’73 appearance, presented on three discs and credited to Garcia and his longtime collaborator, keyboardist Merl Saunders, was billed at the time as a Merl Saunders Experience gig; Garcia joining in as the quintet’s guitarist and sometime-singer, while newcomer Sarah Fulcher handled many of the lead vocals.  And, it’s Fulcher, right from the opening strains of “Expressway (To Your Heart),” whose voice takes center stage, stealing thunder on a 16-song run consisting mainly of familiar covers.  Sure, Garcia sings too, with patented ache and soul, such as on a rather concise, by comparison, reading of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” 

He’s also here, there, and everywhere on guitar, way up in the mix- doubling, countering, and mooring Fulcher’s powerful pipes- and takes plenty of extended solos.  In fact, it’s all a bit sprawling and loose, especially on a 20-minute rundown of Saunders’ “The System.”  Yet, it’s Garcia as a supporting guitarist to Fulcher throughout that makes this a standout entry; Garcia and Saunders appearing content to cede some if not most of the spotlight, even showcasing Fulcher’s originals: a 12-minute “Find a Rainbow” and a 14-minute trip on “Go Climb a Mountain.”

Volume 13, too, brings a guest to the party, and again Garcia plays gracious host.  Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fame, sits-in for the entirety of the two discs, and the Big Man is brilliant as both a complementary and starring addition to Garcia’s sextet.  Perhaps even too complementary; at least until things get cooking.

The songlist is typical of the era as Garcia works himself into form, after his mid-‘80s health issues, on classics from his catalog such as the opening couplet of “Cats Under the Stars” and the Grateful Dead’s “They Love Each Other.”  Clemons humbly serves the songs, dropping in sparse and concentrated lines of support.  It’s not until a stellar “Dear Prudence” that Garcia and Clemons seem to relax and embrace the moment, trading transcendent runs.  From there, the magic of mutual admiration builds, hitting a particular pinnacle on a reggae-infused jaunt through Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Fulcher and Clemons each play roles that define their respective shows as distinctive.  Fulcher’s place is in the middle of a freewheeling, stealthy, jam-centric funnel cloud.  Clemon’s spot is among a road-tight unit and its tested repertoire, with the horn man bringing his own massive rep from Springsteen’s ensemble.  Yet both- Fulcher, the fresh female recruit, and Clemons, the seasoned vet- albeit in each’s own fashion, bring out in Garcia a forever flexible guitarist and benevolent musical correspondent.