Guest stars abound on this collection of live material from organist/singer/band leader Merl Saunders. Apparently, Saunders will invite any musician he knows to come on stage and jam when he’s in town, and Merl knows a lot of very good musicians. The personnel listings on these ten songs reads like a who’s who of jam-rock – John Popper, Trey Anastasio, Dr. John, Steve Kimock, David Grisman, Maria Muldaur, and Jerry Garcia are all present. With such an awesome array of talent, one would expect this record to smoke, and I can say with pleasure that Merl doesn’t disappoint.
Since the disc deals almost exclusively with impromptu jams, the songs themselves tend to be relatively simple blues and R&B numbers. The performances, however, are stunning. On several tunes, Saunders shares the microphone with talented singers, resulting in the powerful duets “Paris Blues” (with Dr. John) “Gee Baby Ain’t I Been Good to You?” (with Maria Muldaur) and “I Put a Spell On You” (with Mariana). It is when instrumentalists sit in, however, that things get really hot. It’s clear that not only is everyone having fun in these recordings, but they’re not afraid to stretch out and take extended solos. Three tracks stand out in this respect. The disc opener – an extremely funky twelve minute take on Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” – features Popper and Kimock taking longs solos over a never ending groove. Later, emerging from a “Dark Star” jam by Saunders’ regular band (the only performance on the album without a guest star) Saunders and David Grisman duet on the classic “Summertime.” The combination of Grisman’s delicate mandolin lines and Saunders’ haunting chords produces one of the most beautiful versions of this standard that I’ve heard. This is immediately followed by the rave-up “We All Wanna Boogie” recorded in Burlington with Trey sitting in. While it’s not surprising that he turns in a blazing solo, the support Trey receives from the band is startling. Frequently when a musician sits in, the band gives him room to play but never breaks from the basic groove or chord structure. In this case, the band follows every twist and turn in the solo heightening the tension until the entire band melts down in climax.
Since his unfortunate passing, any recording which features Jerry Garcia is given special attention. Jerry appears the last track of the album, an out-take from Saunders’ “Blues for the Rainforest” album. The song is the lovely ballad “Sunrise Over Haleakala”. It is a beautiful piece with no solos per se – almost an ambient piece meant to evoke the break of day in the forests of Hawaii. In a way it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, being quiet and meditative rather than funky or exciting, but it serves as a pleasant coda to the live material and as a heartfelt appreciation of Jerry’s contribution to this music.
It would be misleading to say that there aren’t mistakes or weak points in the album, but that is the nature of improvised music. Merl Saunders has assembled a collection of incredible moments, and while there may be a missed cue or flubbed note here and there, that serves only as reminder that this is not a pristine product of studio manipulation, but a bunch of people on stage having a blast. My only regret is that I wasn’t present at any of these shows.