Jerry Garcia CD 004

Ever since the Jerry Garcia Estate came to their senses and realized that all the live Garcia tapes they had laying around amounted to a veritable goldmine (both musically and financially), they've been working like mad elves to get as much out as fast as possible. Ordinarily I'd complain – in addition to bottlenecking, it starts getting downright expensive to be a good fan – except that, so far anyway, everything they've released has been worth its weight.

The fourth release from the vault, Keystone, Berkeley, recorded September 1st 1974, doesn’t take top honors. After Midnight is a more exciting listen and Pure Jerry’s Lunt-Fontanne ’87 shows sports more thrilling setlists. But this glimpse into a smoky neighborhood bar, at summer’s end, 1974, offers delights all its own.

Billed as "Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders Band," the line-up on this particular night included future Garcia standby John Kahn on the bass, Paul Humphrey on the drums, and Martin Fierro on sax and flute. This roster only toured for the second half of 1974 and morphed into the Legion of Mary band by January of 1975. The only difference? Humphrey was replaced by Ron Tutt.

And no, this show is not from the same run as the famed Live at the Keystone releases — those were recorded at the same venue, with a similar Garcia/Saunders band, an entire year earlier. Not surprisingly, some of the songs that appeared on those releases ("Keepers," "Someday Baby") reappear here, with notably different workouts.

Like most of his collaborations with the encyclopedic Merl Saunders, this particular Garcia project draws from the music that gave birth to rock n' roll, and really becomes a musical revue in that sense. With the Grateful Dead, Garcia forged new musical boundaries. With this band, he stops to consider heritage. And at a time when rock 'n' roll was young to begin with. Predictably, a couple of Bob Dylan tunes get the treatment ("Tough Mama," "Going, Going, Gone"). The few originals are mostly jazz-fusion instrumentals from Saunders, although much of the night belongs to riverside blues and R & B. Perhaps the finest treat of all, for Garcia scholars, is with the opening "Neighbor, Neighbor." A New Orleans-influenced blues number, Garcia falls in step with the song's Cajun feel, singing it with authority. Not surprisingly, Garcia and Saunders kept the song in their repertoire throughout the rest of 1974, and took it with them into Legion of Mary's cache as well.

Five years after Miles Davis released Bitches Brew, the "Keystone Jam" approaches territory Miles had begun to stake out in the late 60s, while Garcia was still coping feels from Sketches of Spain. Nonetheless, the horns punch through a jam that moves with a driving rhythm, driven by brass. One can only imagine how many jaws the janitor had to pick up off the floor after this one.

Interestingly, Garcia does not dominate all the jams here. The baton gets passed around frequently from guitar to horns to keyboards, and the game of musical chairs is executed skillfully, with leads chasing leads, and one instrument following the other. Hand-offs are exchanged generously and gracefully, with a true sense of musical conversation. The thrill of this release is in listening to the interplay, because that's where all the action is.

This was a smart release for the Estate to choose at this particular time. They've begun releasing Pure Jerry CDs at a rate faster than even they had anticipated, and to great success. There are hundreds of JGB concerts that people want to hear again; many of which, like Grateful Dead concerts, varied only in their variable elements. This show, with Merl Saunders, offers so much that is different that even the constants are different. The musicians, the songs, the very feel of the music — it's all different than what the casual Garcia fan would think of first.

If the Pure Jerry series hopes to retain its reputation as must-have music, then it needs to be frequently stirred, with rare gems from the depths making their way to the surface. But the Pure Jerry alternative – to become an archival release beast, pumping out as many shows as often as possible, knowing fans won’t want to buy each one – well, that’s not a bad option, either. Which way it goes is something that we’ll find out this year, as the Estate further develops the series. In the meantime, this is definitely one to enjoy.