In late 1974 the Grateful Dead were battening down the hatches and taking refuge from the storm of popularity that had pushed them into larger venues, stage setups and crews. As the age old saying goes ‘more money, more problems’. Jerry had slinked away to the comforts of small Bay Area clubs and a song book stocked with Bob Dylan, Motown classics, early rock & roll and everyone’s new island fascination: reggae. But, here’s the funny thing about the Jerry Garcia Band (or JGB) – while the Grateful Dead were this hugely popular hand over fist profitable touring group – with nearly every note and movement being recorded by their rabid fan base – Jerry’s solo career has largely gone undocumented. The band was often fleshed out with a ragtag ad hoc assembly of musicians that allowed for a constant game of ‘who’s on first?’. Drummers, keyboardists, back up singers and others came and went, but throughout all this, the core membership was Jerry Garcia with his right hand man, John Kahn on bass – a dynamic duo that would work together for nearly 30 years.
The Dead’s short but productive sabbatical ended in 1975 with the release of the transformative Blues For Allah, with the band back on road mid-1976 with a scaled back presence – both on and off the stage. 1977 saw a legendary spring tour and the release of Terrapin Station. Feeding off this relentless forward momentum, Garcia hit the studio for his first proper release as the Jerry Garcia Band (Cats Under the Stars) with an all-star cast of friends including Kahn, Keith and Donna Godchaux, Elvis’ drummer, Ron Tutt, organist Merl Saunders and folkie Maria Muldaur. Garcia’s arsenal were at the top of their respective games, beautifully blending influences as varied as reggae, gospel, and early rock & roll.
During February and March 1978 the Garcia Band, along with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, hit the road in support of the album for a whirlwind run of shows throughout the East Coast and California. The tour culminated in a benefit show on March 22 for the local paper Sonoma Stump, in the tiny Sonoma town of Sebastapol, with Buzz Buchanan assuming drums in place of Tutt. On paper this show looks like a straightforward, yet stacked, Jerry gig – Motown is represented not once but twice in the first set with “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Second That Emotion”. There is the Dylan cover (“Simple Twist of Fate”) and a soulful albeit ghostly rendition of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” along with cuts off the new album including the title track and the quiet romanticism of “Mission in the Rain”. The second set, however, is where the heat lies – opening the set is a pummeling version of Jimmy Cliffs “The Harder They Come” – with Kahn’s bass hammering out a thick rhythmic pulse, as Buzz fills it in with a rootsy swing. Garcia easily slides into the solos as Keith tickles the keys with a funky and imaginative fervor.
As the set raves on, the continuing mystery of JGB’s Abbott and Costello-like membership is brought to the fore, as it has being long rumored that Hunter’s keyboardist, Ozzie Ahlers, sat in with the band that evening as an unknown, yet swift, set of hands taking the group off the rails for a runaway version of “Mystery Train”. The Garcia estate, through some deep detective work, finally confirmed he was indeed the hands behind the final four songs – making this the first recordings of Ahlers with the JGB as he later joined the group from 1979-80. The real highlight of the second half with Ahlers is the short but sweet gospel standard “I’ll Be With Thee”. Maria and Donna beautifully harmonize together (so well in fact that you have to wonder what the Dead would of sounded like if Maria was always there to support Donna) as Garcia’s voice plays the part of our Lord bellowing reassurance of constant companionship and faith. Not to be outdone, the night closes with a spirited version of “Midnight Moonlight” that sends the small crowd into the brisk Pacific air. As history would prove, the chances of seeing such a intimate affair, post-1978, would become far and few between … words / d norsen