Rhino Records 76536

With the recent releases of the All Good Things box set, the first volume of the proposed Pure Jerry archival series, and – now – the triple-disc After Midnight, it seems as if the cork on the late Jerry Garcia’s estate is finally gettin’ popped. It’s ironic, of course, that it’s taken this long. Even during his most heroin-addled years, when his songwriting output dwindled to nearly zilch, Garcia remained a prolific live performer. Cynics might accuse any given Jerry Garcia Band release of being nothing more than a crisp document of a junkie playing for his junk. And they might be right. It’s a bit sad to hear the lethargic rhythms creep in, as they do on After Midnight. They would plague the last 15 years of Garcia’s career, eventually slowing nearly every song in Garcia’s songbook to a generic mid-tempo crawl that gradually metastasized into a depressing plod by Garcia’s 1995 death.

But, in 1980, when After Midnight was recorded, that sound was still an artistic choice, and Garcia was still exploring the canvas. Garcia’s selection of material was as laid back as his arrangements. As he did for most of his extra-Dead career, Garcia sang mostly covers. And, while certainly not a substitute for new original material, they represent definite areas Garcia was interested in exploring as a musician and, especially, as a vocalist. The tunes fall into several categories, many of which cross-pollinated under Garcia’s curiosity-propelled fingers: old pop numbers ("That’s What Love Will Make You Do," "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You," "Tore Up Over You"), reggae or reggae-influenced grooves ("The Harder They Come," "I’ll Take A Melody"), bluegrass holdovers ("Midnight Moonlight," "Catfish John"), supple stretchers ("After Midnight," "Sugaree"), and… Dylan ("Simple Twist of Fate," "Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door").

It is the last two categories that provide the most compelling music on After Midnight. The Garcia Band was more solo-oriented than the Dead, so when they actually begin to go out on the title track it is a great relief to the ears to hear the underlying structure begin to change. Garcia hits some sort of late ’70s compression/distortion pedal (dialed to the most tasteful settings possible) and launches into vintage alien blues. After the relative stasis of the much of the other music, "After Midnight" actually seems like it’s going somewhere, and it is: a transcendent instrumental reading of The Beatles’ "Eleanor Rigby" that Garcia was fond of in the spring of 1980. Garcia’s guitar take on Paul McCartney’s melody starts tentatively, but builds in expression and confidence as he goes. Garcia’s playing is so often described as "lyrical" that it’s a small, wonderful surprise to hear him voice an actual vocal line. By the second chorus, he’s soaring, and with a slight-of-hand, snaps into double-time to lead the band back into "After Midnight." And, after the reprise, Garcia builds to an impressive crescendo, his solo fanning outwards with surprisingly little rock star pretension.

The disc's other apex comes with a breathtaking 17-minute version of Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate" that is impossibly languid and patient. Though John Kahn's Beavis-like bass solo briefly zaps the mood, Garcia milks every last nuance of Dylan's almost jazz-like changes. The band never strays from them, but Garcia's exquisite melodic grasp of the lyrics' solitude invests the chord progression with a downright ghostliness. This is how the Garcia Band is supposed to work, one senses: to see how far Garcia can push the boundaries of a bar band. It is an active expression of Garcia's perpetual musical question of whether transcendence really does lie between the changes of a song and not just the furthest reaches of jam-space.

The answer is the question, of course, and Garcia pondered it more nights than he didn't in the late '70s and early '80s. On this particular night, leading a lean club/theater-weaned quartet, he had particularly direct access to the kind of playing likely to get him there — and probably a refreshing change from the two-drummer monster the Dead had become in their post-hiatus years. Not that they were down for the count yet. Several months after the recording of After Midnight, Garcia and the Dead would record the nearly perfect acoustic live album Reckoning, which turned out to be arguably their last absolutely unqualified artistic success, and one that probably wouldn’t have occurred without Garcia’s work on nights like this. After Midnight is Garcia in full-quest.