David Gans, Life is a Jam (Perfectible Recordings)

Jack Rose with D. Charles Speer, Ragged and Right (Thrill Jockey)

Like one of those cool old jazz albums that offers several variations on the same song – allowing the listener to experience the emotion of the moment on each pass through a particular piece – David Gans’ new Life Is A Jam EP lets us sit in on three distinctly different adventures that use the same tune as a launchpad. Gans (who besides being long-time host of the Grateful Dead Hour and a frequent contributor to the SIRIUS/XM Grateful Dead channel is an accomplished author/photographer/heady troubadour) tells the tale during the happy, bouncy little ditty that sets things up:

And we don’t know where we’re going ‘til we get there
And we don’t know how it ends until it ends
We do our greatest work when we’re not thinking
And no one can remember what played when
‘Cause what we seek is not just entertainment
What we make is not just rock and roll
We’re teaming up for spiritual entrainment
To fortify the body and the soul

And, boy – do they ever. Gans and fellow Frisconian musical mind-melders Mark Karan (guitar), Mookie Siegal (keys), Joe Kyle Jr. (bass), and Dave Brogan (drums) just let the thing take them where it wants to on each run through. Ideas are floated and seed is scattered; sometimes a riff is passed around and reshaped into another thought altogether; other times, wisps simply weave themselves into their own shape, with the band members nothing more than happy passengers. No one ever actually grabs the wheel, yet Gans and gang manage to land the thing safely on repeated passes … and sound like they’re having fun doing it.

“Fun” is also the key word to use when talking about Ragged and Right, a four-song treasure from the late Jack Rose and buddies D. Charles Speer & The Helix. “Ragged” and “right” apply, too: nailed totally live with no overdubs, these wind-‘er-up-and-let-‘er-go tracks at times sound like a third-set David Nelson Band feeling kinda twangy on a hot, sweat-soaked night.

Three cuts feature D. Charles Speer (alias David Shoford of the No Neck Blues Band) on vocals, sounding just as real, beat-up, and world-weary as can be – but the true lead voice on Ragged and Right is the guitar work of Jack Rose, who passed away this past December at the age of 38. Plugged in and ripping it up on lap steel and heartbroke Telecaster, Rose manages to shine without ever really stepping into the spotlight. At times, he chases and accents the vocal, adding texture to the ache (“Prison Song” and “The Longer You Wait”), while on the old chestnut “In The Pines”, Rose pulls off a growling undertone that answers the musical question, “What would it sound like if a tube amp chain-smoked Luckies and drank bourbon?” The one instrumental of the four cuts, “Linden Avenue Stomp”, could have/would have been fine as a simple ragtimey hooter, but rumble-tumble drums and a driving bassline kick things up a notch, encouraging Rose to dig even deeper.

This is the sound of friends playing for the sheer joy of playing. And unfortunately, this is also the sound of a talent ended way too soon.