Jerry Garcia Family/Rhino
After Jerry Garcia’s passing in August of 1995, one of the only releases with his musical voice connected to it was his work with the Acoustic Band. With the darkness and madness that permeated through that summer’s Grateful Dead tour and, ultimately, the tragic ending that placed a period at the end of the 30 year stream-of-consciousness audio conversation by the band, “Almost Acoustic” settled in as a ray of light, a rope to hold on to at that moment in time and a good friend whose mere presence made things just a bit more tolerable. Time passed, and if you’ve read this site, you know that I’ve listened to numerous post-Dead related projects and shows, but with this recent re-issue of the out-of-print Almost Acoustic it does feel a lot like running into an old buddy who’s been away for many years.
David Nelson (guitar/vocals), Sandy Rothman (mandolin/dobro/banjo/vocals), John Kahn (string bass), Kenny Kosek (fiddle) and David Kemper (snare drum) join Garcia for what amounts to a jam session among friends. It just so happens to be for public consumption. (The illuminating liner notes also explain that playing this music aided Garcia’s recovery from his physical meltdown in 1986.) Among this relaxed atmosphere, they wade through a baker’s dozen of covers from the folk, blues and country worlds plus the Hunter/Garcia original “Ripple.” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” announces the outfit’s intentions, taking the Negro spiritual into reverent yet upbeat string band territory. “Deep Elem Blues” bridges the gap between the worlds of the Dead and the current musical space, while “I’ve Been All Around This World” and “Oh, the Wind and Rain” unfold and wrap you up like a stopover on the comfiest of comfy couches. The material sounds as good as it did 15 years ago when it was needed by me as it probably did in 1987 when it was performed, as well as when it mapped out the lasting folk traditions decades and centuries prior to the Acoustic Band rekindling these verses, choruses and melodies for a new generation.
Those hoping for bonus tracks to add to the album’s 70 minutes may be disappointed. Instead, the release is bundled with Ragged But Right, a bonus disc that was meant to be a follow up album but shelved. The main difference between the two can be found in the warm quality of Almost Acoustic versus the soundboard/audience matrix-like sonics heard on Ragged. It’s not a slam, but a necessary point because the newly released album has a much different sensibility. A dozen songs come from the matinees at New York’s Lunt-Fontaine Theatre with three tracks added from dates at the Wiltern and Warfield. Feeding off the rowdy atmosphere, it’s a high-spirited performance. Offering an indication of the looseness of the performance, Garcia jokes to anyone that skipped work for the early show that he’s going to call their bosses. Despite this, there’s, obviously, a respect for the songs and disciplined interaction between the players.
Like Almost Acoustic, the musicians begin with traditional fare — Ragged But Right — with stops in the usual places – bluegrass, country, folk. Only “Deep Elem Blues” makes a return visit, which is never a bad thing.
In a 21st century world that runs by so quickly that a 24 hour news cycle can barely keep up and social networking keeps us in contact but can prevent interaction in the flesh, these albums by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band afford an opportunity to kick back and, dare I use the term, chill out. There’s a peaceful easy feeling connected to these recordings that works their way into the bloodstream. It’s a lesson that Garcia along with Nelson, Rothman, Kahn, Kosek and Kemper understood. Now it’s your chance.