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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders at the Matrix - A Dialogue

[ed: Corry sent me an email about Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders at the Matrix, which turned into a rather elaborate exchange on the subject. One piece of our correspondence involved the tape traveling as 5/20/71. This is some of Garcia's finest playing on tape in any context. I highly recommend that you check it out. I have done a little metadata analysis of the tape and reckon that there's no reason to doubt the David Lemieux-inspired conclusion that it is what it purports to be, and plenty of reason to concur in it.

Corry was stunned at how "out" this material is, sounding more like Howard Wales than Merl Saunders on keys, unmooring totally, in quasi-free jazz style, from the songs. I agreed with him, but, if my metadata analysis is right --and we both think it is-- then it is indeed Merl, and we may need, in my words (pace Bayes), to update our priors.

With Corry's permission, I am posting it more or less as we have it in email, with a few tweaks here and there. I originally planned that Corry would be in black and I would be in blue ("Tasty hemlock!"), but the quoting arrangement seems to work all right. Don't want too much formatting else Blogger will up and walk away on me.

Dialogue below the fold.]

The conventional distinction for most Garcia fans between Garcia/Wales and Garcia/Saunders is Hooteroll? (1971) vs Live At Keystone (1973). Jerry and Howard just jammed, often in the most far out way possible, while Jerry and Merl anchored their still-considerable improvisations into conventional popular song structures, in the tradition of R&B nightclub music.

I'd  just note that, since its 1998 release, I'd consider Side Trips, recorded May 1970, to be a better anchor.
Garcia and Wales played intermittently from Spring '70 until January 72, and Garcia/Saunders from September '70 until July '75, with some crossover. The first tape I hard of Garcia/Saunders was Feb 6 '72, and since it was a KSAN broadcast it was a widely circulated Garcia/Saunders tape from early days. In my mind, Garcia/Saunders at The Matrix from September '70 until May '71 (when it closed) was a nascent version of Garcia/Saunders in February 72--some Dylan, some R&aB, some blues, some jammed out Merl instrumentals.
In fact, that's just an assumption, based on nothing. There are no tapes of JGMS from The Matrix (save the fragment reputedly from May 71), no reviews, no detailed eyewitness accounts beyond foggy memories. I always assumed that Jerry and Merl were doing "High Heeled Sneakers" and "One Kind Favor" from the beginning, but I never reflected on why I thought that. I can't be the only one who made that assumption.
I agree 100% about the power of assumptions - perfectly true. Most of what we believe to be true derives from our assumptions, which is, to say the least, problematic. But it is what it is. More importantly for me, is the sharpness of your distinction between jazz and r&b. You know I have this "musics" (plural being important) theme, and especially indigenous American musical forms. So sharpening this distinction, and mapping it onto Howard and Merl, is fascinating and important. It doesn't map to race, interestingly. That's another layer that I am trying to sort through, it all refracts in weird ways, like how Howard soaked in black music in Cinci or wherever that was, just as Vitt did in Sacto. And Merl at various points probably played to mostly white listeners. He obviously has his jazz influences in the more staid Jimmy Smith tradition. But I think you are right: in the sense that you are describing, i.e., being able to play "out", Howard > Merl
My assumptions about how 5/20/71 "didn't sound like Merl" were just my assumptions about how I thought Merl Saunders was "supposed" to sound when he played with Garcia. Listening to the Keystone Companion set, there are enough jamming sections that I can hear how Merl did sound at least some of the time, when it suited him. What's different about the May 20 '71 tape is that its Merl playing the Howard Wales role, all jazz, all the time. He never goes to Mars, the way Howard did, but it's far more jazz than R&B.

I do think Merl at least achieves Martian orbit at a few places. I have listening notes to compile and post.

With all that being said, I looked at my assumptions, and while they turn out to be wrong, I think my assumptions are widely shared by Garcia fans, so that means I'm not likely the only one who has made faulty assumptions. If we accept your very plausible argument that the tape in question is May 20 '71 at the Keystone Korner, confirmed by Lemieux's knowledge of another tape, what do we know and not know?

What Do We Not Know?
We don't seem to have a single recording of Garcia and Saunders at the Matrix, not one, not even a fragment.

20140921-04: We putatively do: 5/11/71. (JGMF listening notes have been posted.)

We don't have a meaningful eyewitness account of a Garcia/Saunders show until October 3, 1971, when Paul Grushkin reviewed the band for the Stanford Daily ( Here and there a few people have said they recall seeing Garcia/Saunders at the Matrix or Keystone Korner, but their accounts are so vague that they are not historically useful.

Actually, I find the admittedly short Staska-Mangrum mention of 6/26/71 to be very meaningful: it says they were playing songs that Garcia was singing and so forth. Having nothing else to do on a Saturday, they narrate,
we went to the New Monk. ... And who do you think we see, but Tom Fogerty, Jerry Garcia, Merle [sic] Saunders and Bill Vitt getting together to jam. ... The New Monk was SRO, and when they began playing, the crowd couldn't sit still. Garcia also did some singing. They got together some bluegrass (which Garcia is known for), gospel and rock (Staska-Mangrum 1971).

You hypothesize below that the arrival of Fogerty coincides with the arrival of songs to sing. I think that's exactly what the Staska-Mangrum piece confirms. Further, your hypothesis that Jerry needed to focus on singing arrangements, and so wanted a rhythm guitarist, is spot-on. I have even more to say, below.
Other than the May '71 Garcia tapes listed here, we don't seem to have much from Keystone Korner. My casual searching revealed just two Garcia shows (Jan 15 and Jun 30 '72). On top of that, I don't even think there is a tape by anyone else from the Keystone Korner in 1971-72.  Nor do I recall a detailed eyewitness review from a Garcia Keystone Korner show, not in an analytically useful way. I can't recall a review or blog post that has any details. Since Kidd (or whoever recorded it) at least casually edited the tape, at least cutting out tuning breaks and "we're going to take a short break" comments, we don't have any feel for what a Keystone Korner show was like. Do we even have a photo of the room and the stage of the Keystone Korner in its rock days? (I realize the KK is better documented in its jazz incarnation).


As a result of the things that we lack, listed above, we don't have the slightest idea of what Garcia/Saunders played at The Matrix.

Except for the putative 5/11/71 tape. I say putative because, given the similarities of the room feel, the tape could very well be from Keystone Korner, as 5/20/71 turned out to be. It's perfectly plausible that someone along the way just guessed Matrix along the way, and with good reason. But we do know what Jerry and Merl sounded like in May 1971, and Staska-Mangrum tell us what Jerry-Merl-Tom sounded like a month later.

As a result of the things that we lack, listed above, we don't have the slightest idea of what Garcia/Saunders played at The Matrix. We don't know how long they played, we don't know if they jammed off familiar tunes or just let it rip. I think any assertions by anyone to the contrary would be supported on no foundation at all. I realize that they probably played two sets of about an hour's lengths, but my point is that we just assume that. On the May 20 '71 tape, "cut 4" (at about 44:00) is very definitely some sort of R&B instrumental, with an actual arrangement. "Cut 5" (around 52:00) begins with a very familiar melody that I couldn't quite put my finger on--a Van Morrison song or something like that, although obviously it gets far afield. Garcia/Saunders may have had a somewhat different repertoire in their first year of existence, but we have no real way to be sure at this time.

Since these tapes have circulated for many years now, I don't know what I used to assume. This is how I understand them to have been, and I always figured that their debut on ca. September 7, 1970 was some kind of B3 heavy HowardMerl stuff, but only based on a linear interpolation between Side Trips (May 1970) and "5/11/71 Matrix". Then I see a qualitative change with the addition of Fogerty.

When did Garcia start doing vocal numbers with Merl? If we want to make an argument that he sang songs back at the Matrix, what would we be basing the assertion on?

I have never thought Garcia sang songs at the Matrix, unless they did "It's a Sin" or something. I didn't have them doing "High Heel Sneakers" in my mind until later.

But it's in the spirit of our correspondence that I scrutinize that - it's my own pure assumption, 180 degrees turned around from yours, I think! I based it on its absence from the 100 minutes of tape I know (5/11/71 + 5/20/71), and on the above-mentioned linear interpolation. Yet, be careful our assumptions ... HHS could easily have been in the repertoire. Garcia played that song with Howard (8/29/69) and we know that Garcia-Saunders-Kahn-Vitt would play it. Should the goose's linear interpolation be the gander's waving away? I dunno. But at least it's there to see.

Same goes for "One Kind Favor", BTW: we know Garcia played it in 1966 and in 1973, so why not 1971? Again, I have probably committed the error of putting the weight of too much inference on the thin shoulders of 100 minutes of tape.

What Do We Know?
After the May KK tape, the first Garcia/Saunders tape we have is September 24 '71 at The Lion's Share. It's typical in many ways of what would follow for the next few years: some "top 40" instrumentals, some Merl jams, some blues and R&B covers and some contemporary covers (in this case, two Jesse Winchester songs). However, Tom Fogerty has joined the band. Did Garcia start singing before Tom Fogerty joined the band? We don't actually know. It's worth considering, however, that Fogerty joined the band because Garcia didn't have confidence singing and playing guitar without another player. Obviously, by early '72 he's past that--Garcia was a quick learner--but if I had any question for a reliable eyewitness from the JGMS Matrix shows, it would be "did Jerry sing?"

Yes, important. Fogerty expands the repertoire to more white music (bluegrass, country, rockabilly, etc.). Fogerty provides rhythm guitar support, important as Garcia is figuring out vocal arrangements. Fogerty can sing a few numbers and add harmony vocals.
I always assumed Jerry singing started with Tom, which was the advent of singable songs in the JGMS as far as we know. Garcia never regularly sang in any side outfit, as far as we know, before Tom Fogerty arrived.

Garcia used his own bands to play music that the Dead weren't playing. The Dead could do anything, more or less, but they couldn't do everything. Although Garcia did his own music for many reasons, one of the attractions to him was a chance to do whatever the Dead weren't doing at the time. Thus Old And In The Way thrived during the period when the Dead were farthest from their acoustic roots; the Jerry Garcia Band took over interpreting popular songs once the Dead largely dropped cover versions.

Precisely right. My current typology is three musics: "out" (Howard, Ned), white roots (bluegrass, country, rockabilly, white gospel), black roots (jazz, soul, r&b, funk, disco, church). The GD covers all of this terrain in different mixes at different times. GD+extra-GD is Jerry breathing around and through all of these musics over the course of his life.

Most Dead fans would say that the Fall '70-Summer '71 Grateful Dead lineups was one of the less spacey configurations. Yes, there were some great "Dark Star" and "Other One" performances on occasion, but it was neither 1969 nor 1973 in that respect. So it would follow that Garcia would be interested in doing some pretty spacey jams with his own band.

IMO this was absolutely the Dead's least jammed-out period until late 1986-early 1987.

For you, "it would follow that Garcia would be interested in doing some pretty spacey jams with his own band: this is the strongest statement of the GD-GOTS complementarity hypothesis. It's a pretty big jump. I have a few pretty choice quotes from Garcia in which he describes them in these terms. "It's like your wife and your girlfriend, folks," he quipped to legendary New York DJ Scott Muni, with the Groucho cigar and brow, tipsy over a St. Patty's Day whiskey, 1978.

It took him a while to get all of this stuff into some kind of equilibrium, mostly on the GOTS side, of course, and especially once the Dead formulized the 2-set routine from 1980. You could say he had the mix he wanted from 1983-1994, the JGB 21b period. We can think of the various ebbs and flows as a kind of musical equilibration (around the admittedly moving target of the changing moods of Garcia's Muse).

The same periodization also reflects relatively sensible institutionalization of everything. That's at least partly a tautology, since I operationalize both musical equilibrium and institutionalization in terms of stable band membership. They go partly hand-in-glove, but I'd also argue that institutions created all kinds of useful efficiencies, creating space for Garcia to work his craft while accountants accounted and lawyers conjured and then tortured the law until it yielded. Checks got cashed, stuff happened that he really wanted to have happen, but that he couldn't keep on top of for himself, or just really didn't want to deal with (which are often very much the same thing). Institutions serve uses. As handy as a shovel, if sometimes a little bit harder to grasp, they are technologies, "very useful engines" that we manifest and manipulate, that help us manage some of the churn, tame some of the chaos.

You could say that the Fogerty-era JGMS really germinated JGB #21b. Merl and Jerry at the Matrix were playing jazz and probably some R&B, "black music"; Merl and Jerry and Tom at the New Monk (and the Inn, and the Share) were playing some of that together, as well, but the repertoire suddenly --and, yes, I do think it's a discontinuity, a "historical rupture"-- took on a healthy dose of white Americana - rockabilly, rock, country, Dylan.

We also know that Keith Godchaux had joined the Dead. Space came back to the Grateful Dead, but "new" (to the Dead) cover versions started to slip away. So it does seem that Garcia/Saunders responded by being less spacey and more cover oriented, and even added a new member (Tom Fogerty) to facilitate that (I realize I am simplifying a discussion of the Dead's repertoire in 1971-72, but I am speaking about general trends).

That is a great observation. I very much agree. Dead moved more to originals (from Garcia, and Ace, and all of the material from Hunter's Rambling Rose trilogy) insofar as they were singing songs. More true for Garcia than for Weir, who kept the cowboy songs, but I care more about the first guy.

From that point of view, there is another thing to consider with respect to the Dead's repertoire, namely the declining role of Pigpen. If I understand correctly, he had a serious health scare in Summer '71 and missed a tour, and surprised everyone by coming back in December, but no one seems to have had much doubt that his role would at best be diminished. Now, he was their friend, and the Dead members probably hoped that Pigpen could remain a sort of "Special Guest" for many years, but I don't think anyone thought that Pig was going to be a regular, full time member of the band after mid-1972. And, lo and behold, in Fall of '71, Garcia starts playing Jimmy Reed tunes and the like with Merl. There's nothing sinister about this--Jerry just liked playing that kind of R&B guitar, and without Pigpen he had to sing it himself.


Garcia also left the New Riders in Fall '71--his participation in the October tour was just to accommodate Columbia and the release of the album--so the extent he enjoyed interpreting rock songs as an instrumentalist, as opposed to jamming like a jazz man, that was another outlet that was ending. Garcia played different instruments in NRPS and JGMS, and the songs were different, but JGMS wasn't a "songs" band until Garcia was out the door with the New Riders.

YES. But, also, note too the replacement of Bakersfield country with rockabilly: they are both white roots music.

New Assumptions
Garcia/Saunders just played instrumental jams at the Matrix, similar to Garcia and Wales. Some of the jams were based on familiar R&B or rock tunes, but they jammed off them like a jazz band.

Yes, but I am happy to say that I think that now, after dissecting 5/20/71 and setting it along side 5/11/71, and this discussion, this feels more like inference than assumption to me.

While the odds suggest Garcia must have sung a tune once in a while at The Matrix, he didn't make vocals a regular part of JGMS shows until Tom Fogerty joined the band.


Garcia's vocals made Fogerty's arrival attractive to Jerry. At exactly this time, the Dead got Keith Godchaux and Pigpen's role was (at best) greatly reduced. As the Grateful Dead evolved, JGMS evolved as their mirror image and played the sort of material that Jerry would no longer get to do with the Dead.

Of course, I don't have any more evidence than anyone else have about Matrix or Keystone Korner shows, but I think my new assumptions are easier to defend than my prior ones.

Yes, I agree!

[ed: That's the dialogue. Then I went on to say a few more things ...]

What we have just put together is a repertorial analysis, which is fine because you wanted to figure out what Jerry and Merl played at the Matrix, and that's a good definition of a repertoire. I feel good about our analysis here. But let me talk about Fantasy Records.
Since you already have a million ways to map that into the above conversation, I'll try to add a few pieces you might not know. Did you know that the same Staska-Mangrum column also mentions that Tom Fogerty is cutting a single, and that Merl is playing on it? I haven't pinned it all down, but there were also at least 1 or 2 mentions in the SFC about Fantasy recording sessions involving these guys, Tom and Merl and Jerry and others, right around this same time, mentioned on the same (or at least proximate) page as a Garcia-Saunders-Fogerty gig listing? There's a relationship between live and vinyl that had never previously existed in the Garciaverse. And it's interesting that Garcia didn't play anything from Garcia, but played stuff from the various Fantasy records. 1972 would see the following Fantasy LPs with Garcia contributions, per deaddisc:

info Excalibur, Tom Fogerty, 1972 ( 1973?)
info Heavy Turbulence, Merl Saunders, 1972
info Fire Up, Merl Saunders, 1973
info Live at the Keystone, Saunders/Garcia/Kahn/Vitt, 1973

And a few singles:

info Save Mother Earth Pt 1 / Save Mother Earth Pt 2, Merl Saunders, 1972
info My Problems Got Problems / Welcome To The Basement, Merl Saunders, 1972
no info Faces Places People / Forty Years, Tom Fogerty, 1972

All of this looks an awful lot like a business arrangement with at least two dimensions, live and vinyl.

It also brings the New Monk into focus. Tom lived in Berkeley, and by revealed preferences we'd see that the venue worked just fine for Garcia-Saunders-Kahn-Vitt. I have a million new New Monk and Keystone Korner listings for this period in our spreadsheets, and I am working toward figuring out when (like, exactly) Freddie took it over. But I do wonder it especially in terms of the Fantasy nexus. I am not sure where money might have moved between the House The Creedence built and 2119 University - maybe none at all. Maybe Fantasy just paid to promote their records, Freddie paid to promote his gigs, and the two things worked well together.

! see also: Arnold, Corry. 2012. Excalibur-Tom Fogerty (Jerry Garcia-guitar). Hooterollin' Around, March 2, 2012, URL,accessed 9/24/2014;
! see also: listening notes at


Staska, Kathie, and George Mangrum. 1971. Rock Talk by KG: Instruments, singers help sets. Hayward Daily Review, July 1, 1971, p. 12.


  1. An interesting discussion! From my point of view, it's a pity that the time period of Garcia's most freeform live jams with Wales & Saunders ('70-71) is the least well documented. Other than the 5/20/71 tape and the "Side Trips" release, we don't have much to go on, though evidently more Garcia tapes exist in the Vault (such as 5/21/71 and likely others).
    It may be safe to assume that Garcia didn't sing many songs with Wales. Or, on the other hand, perhaps his shows with Wales followed a format similar to the 8/28/69 Family Dog show - a couple blues tunes followed by an hour-plus of loose jamming.
    It's logical that when Saunders picked up where Wales dropped out, the shows would follow the same format. The evidence from May '71, such as it is, suggests a nearly-all-instrumental outfit. So it's a good question whether a solid song "repertoire" was gradually added over the year, or if the band quickly shifted to a more song-oriented show once Tom Fogerty joined.
    (Has it been asked just WHY Fogerty joined them - that is, would he have been interested in playing endless free-jazz jams? Perhaps they introduced him exactly so they could make this kind of switch, and that was his purpose from the start. You'd know better than I if anyone in the band made any statement suggesting this.)
    One thing your discussion doesn't mention much is location. The Matrix traditionally welcomed "jam nights," but since it closed in spring '71, the Garcia/Saunders band had to go elsewhere, and moved to the Keystone Korner. That by itself may also have influenced a change in approach to a more song-based, audience-friendly repertoire.
    The shift does seem to have been sudden. Our May '71 tape is all jams; and yet the report from June '71 is that they're already playing "bluegrass, gospel, and rock" covers. That's a radical change, perhaps similar to Garcia's abrupt shift away from Saunders & jazz in 1975.
    The few accounts from summer '71 suggest their song material was already in place. But barring more tape/setlist details from Lemieux or Blair Jackson, we're somewhat in the dark about the band's transitions through early 1971.

  2. It represents an ex post fallacy for me to point to JGB #21b as the model of what Garcia sought musically, but I'll go there anyway. I think he wanted all of these musics in his life, and he needed to construct GD + GOTS so as to have them all, in ways that satisfied him.

    What I am arguing, in short, is that Garcia wanted the white roots repertoire in his life, he wanted to sing Dylan songs, and that his desire to be able to sing and play those songs caused the bringing-in of Fogerty.

    It's pure conjecture - we have almost nothing on this period and probably nothing, or next-to-nothing, remains to be found. Bil Vitt is the only surviving player from this period - I'll try to ask him.

  3. I guess it would be self-serving of me to say that this is a great post, but I think it's a useful way to think about our blind spots. We actually have no evidence of what Jerry and Merl did at the Matrix, so while we can all make plausible arguments, we have to recall that we are coming to those arguments from prior assumptions.

    1. Not self-serving. I certainly appreciate it. It's good to just say what's on my mind instead of having to cross every t and dot every i. So, thanks!

  4. Here's a point I should have made but didn't. Corry says "Garcia and Wales played intermittently from Spring '70 until January 72".

    I don't think that's right. I think they played rather intensely in spring (ca. April) to summer (ca. September) of 1970, then again rather intensely for a couple of weeks in January 1972. That's it - nothing in between (more or less).

  5. John Kahn's perspective on the shift to songs, from the winter '87 Golden Road interview:

    Howard Wales, 1970 - "I didn't know what kind of music Garcia and Wales would be playing at the Matrix when I went down. And I still don't know! It was kind of a weird jazz with these other influences - it was mainly Howard's music, all instrumental."
    Switching to Merl - "Eventually, Howard just got tired of doing it and stopped. But we liked doing it, so we just kept playing on Monday nights, and I got Merl Saunders to come do it... I'd been a fan of his for years. He used to play at a place called Jack's on Sutter Street; he had the after-hours jam sessions that went from 2 to 6 in the morning. He had a great organ trio. So I asked him to play with us and it worked out great right away, and then it involved into that [Garcia/Saunders] band, which was a lot different from what we did with Howard."
    The shift - "Merl had his songs, and Jerry started doing a few cover tunes. None of it was really planned out, though. It just evolved in that direction and turned into what it turned into. It was just a Monday night jamming thing, but when we started playing around more it developed a real following and turned into a real good band, I thought. There was a point when we started taking the whole thing a lot more seriously and it didn't feel like the Monday night jam sessions anymore...
    "We were doing real songs and then some of [Garcia's] originals for the first time. We did a real variety of styles. We experimented trying to play whatever we wanted and then ended up playing whatever worked out the best. We never really discussed what direction we wanted to go in. We burned through being just a jam band that played blues and didn't really play songs. You can't do that forever - well, maybe some people can - so we had to find a format where Jerry, especially, would be able to stretch out and have more openings than a basic blues format. Basically our playing evolved out of this desire for everyone to have all the room they want to do what they want without it being boring for the rest of the world."

    Also, a link to a Jan '71 article with a few more hints about what Garcia & Saunders were playing in that period:


!Thank you for joining the conversation!