When you say something sucked, or point to some darkness, you are scandal-mongering. When you rave, your are homer-fanboying. In all cases it's subjective. But, fuck it - it's my blog, and these are my impressions, and if you want to compare notes put 'em in comments or somewhere's else I can find 'em!
The JGB show at the cavernous SF Civic on December 22, 1990 is a late masterpiece.
There, I said it.
I cannot believe the many levels on which this show works. Garcia sounds very much like he wants to be playing this very music with this very band for these very fans on this very night in this very room. The 90-minute second set is not just an artifact of DAT taping, because not one but two songs happen after the big jam of "Don't Let Go". This is one of the longest sets of the post-coma Garcia Band, maybe the longest. Someday I will be able to show a time series testing this claim.
That's not to say that it's a gigglefest. Indeed, notes of nostalgia, sadness, world-weariness, a little darkness and edge definitely strike. But so do moments of light, easy joy.
My post on 11/15/90 referenced the "rehearsed, post-Brent Garcia Band", and I think both the claim and the allusion were spot on. The allusion to Brent speaks to the emotional range on display, on my subjective hearing. Brent's death hit him hard, and the Grateful Dead, to my subjective hearing, was never really the same. (Bob Weir agrees, by his own telling in the Long Strange Trip documentary, Act VI, around 22:45.) I guess Vince was a nice enough guy, but, in my certainly controversial and not-intentionally mean view, the band's sound verged on the ersatz with him in it. It is conventionally claimed that Garcia enjoyed his own band more than the GD for these last five years or so (i.e., post-Brent), and, as I have said, he certainly sounds very much like this is where he wants to be on this particular night. So if the sadness and world-weariness reflect the emotional toll of the losses he had experienced (which would further accumulate with Bill Graham's passing 10+ months later), the joy and lightness reflect the comfort of playing easy tunes with an easy band in an easy setting. That's my story, anyway.
And, the band speaks to the "rehearsed" part of my earlier analysis. I have no evidence of this, but this band absolutely sounds like it has been rehearsing. This will not appear in my notes, I don't think, but the Jerryettes are doing more and more forward work here than earlier in the year. I wish I had some digital musicologist on hand to check arrangements and quantify these things, but all I can go on is my impression. I don't think it's just the tape. The arrangements seem to invite the ladies to be more involved and more audible. Melvin Seals, for his part, is playing electric piano, organ and synth here. As with vocals, I don't have any firm baseline data around Melvin's instrumentation. I wish someone would dig into this stuff so I don't have to - when was he playing synth? Anyway, there's just tons of range on display here, lots of colors and textures and tones.
Here are a few song-centered bullet points to illustrate some of the wide spectrum of highlights.
Mission In The Rain: Hunter called this one of the only explicitly autobiographical songs he wrote for Garcia, and being at the SF Civic, right downtown across from the library, late in the year (solstice or a day off of it), Jerry definitely sounds nostalgic. His guitar work is contemplative, gentle, very soft and round and comforting. He picks out his words carefully. Beautiful.
Señor, Throw Out The Lifeline -> Let's Spend The Night Together: Garcia displays huge emotional range across these three tunes. The nautical themes of the first two connect them to Mission in the autobiographical sense, young Jerry having spent a chunk of his childhood at his mom's waterfront bar, "where the sailors all come in", soaking in the gin-and-cigarette scented salt air and their wild and wooly tales of the sea. They also unify in dark imagery, with Dylan's wicked wind necessitating Edward Uffin's lifesaving action (h/t Allen):
Throw out the life line to danger fraught men,Sinking in anguish where you’ve never been;Winds of temptation and billows of woeWill soon hurl them out where the dark waters flow
They part ways tonally, though, and again this gives expression to the post-Brent Jerry Band, the dark Armageddon of death that we all confront leavened by the lived realities of at least local and temporary salvation, not least through music. The song lilts along pleasantly enough, bringing a little bit of redemption. And my goodness, the music that follows! Garcia absolutely cuts loose on this version of LSTNT, with some absolutely huge, raging guitar. I used to think this was the BOAT version, but on this listen it didn't strike me that way. It seems like it was just great in this period, as my notes from a month earlier, 11/21/90, remind me. The relentlessness of his attack here certainly speaks to ongoing vitality - check it out.
So much for set I. As I noted above, set II clocks in at almost 90 minutes, which is pretty dang amazing, but the quality matches the quantity quite nicely.
The Way You The Things You Do: the Temptations' 1964 original of this sweet little piece clocked in around three straightforward minutes. As I first observed in listening to 11/15/90, the band seems to have extended the arrangement in this period, giving it a big open part that, if this were the GD or Jerry had other aims for his side band, could very well have segued into something else. Indeed, I nominated that version for BOAT consideration, but now, having heard this one from a month later, think 12/22's is even better. That one went out about 7-8 minutes in, this one I really noted it decoupling a minute or so later. But these versions would be worth comparing, others from this period will bear paying attention to, and I would *love* for someone to compare what they are doing here with how it played out earler in the year. I note that the 6/12/90 version clocks in as long as this one, but I generally find that show and the next night to be very sluggish, and I specifically noted this tune as "low energy". It's not fast here, not at all, but it's rich and deep and interesting.
Tore Up Over You: Few songs invoke the imagery of young Jerry, inspired by older brother Tiff, listening to (Black) R&B-cum-rock 'n' roll on the Oakland and SF AM stations in the 1950s than this Hank Ballard number. It wormed its way into his DNA and operated just as systematically on his playing. And here he plays some seriously shredding electric guitar that can reach back in time to melt the conformist shackles of Eisenhower's (White) America. You can hear the joyful transgression, the wide freedom he has to play what he wants, and loud! Ballard's version came out in '56, and I have little doubt but that it caught young Jerry's ear early on, and that he at least noodled it when he got his first electric guitar two years later. I don't know any of that, but you can't prove it didn't happen, so there.
Don't Let Go: always a highlight. This version interests me. When he brought it back in '88 it was a punchy 8-9 minute treat. I think it would run over 20 minutes again within the next few years. It's in Goldilocks-land here, 15 expressive minutes. Melvin's synth really colors it beautifully early on, at 4:45 Garcia doubles the vocals and guitar very precisely and totally uniquely, showing great intention, and it starts getting a little weird already 6 minutes in, Ballard giving way to Coltrane, with a dose of Kesey/Owsley for good measure. Kemper is such an amazing drummer, and things keep bouncing until about 9, Garcia pedals in some effect, and we are fully unmoored for awhile, but not super long. At 10:26, it returns to structure, but not the DLG melody, per se, alluding to it while still out melodically. (I am not sure I am using the right words here.) He spends some time in that space and drops into DLG at 13, closing these particular proceedings. Nice.
On almost every other night, at this point we'd get one more song. Here, we get two, and while I can often make mountains out of molehills, I want to really emphasize that I think this is highly informative. Autopilot would have taken him to Midnight Moonlight. An alternate flight path would have been straight to Tangled Up In Blue. Instead, we get a little "Struggling Man", again giving perfect expression to the emotional tenor of the evening - it's hard, but we keep going. Saying good night after Tangled Up, he sounds absolutely wiped out, and justifiably so. Man gave is all this night. Thank you, Jerry!
Man, what a show! Two snaps up, with a swirl. Listening notes below the fold.