Saturday, January 25, 2014

Jerry Garcia Was Always At The Root Of It All

I'll be turning 40 next month.  I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but over the last few weeks I've been reflecting on the significant role music has played in my life for the last 20+ years.  Although I didn't start playing an instrument until I was in my early 30's, I've been a music obsessed listener going all the way back to my freshman year of college when I first heard the Grateful Dead's Reckoning.  That live acoustic album was soon to be followed by the discovery of Jerry's bluegrass side project Old and In the Way, and then the Jerry Garcia Band and other partnerships such as Garcia/Grisman, Garcia/Wales, and more.
Jerry Garcia
The Grateful Dead - or maybe just Jerry Garcia himself - was the "Big Bang" from which all my other musical interests spiraled out of control.  As I look back on my timeline I've once again come to realize that this remains the overarching nucleus to my musical tastes.  The early 90's were a time of MTV unplugged and although I hadn't been "turned on" yet, I remember liking Eric Clapton's Unplugged, which caused me to look for something similar.  Hence, the purchasing of Reckoning which was The Grateful Dead's 1980 "unplugged" album which predated the MTV brand by a decade.  From the acoustic sounds of Reckoning and the bluegrass twang of Old and In the Way, the path quickly led to the string-based Americana of Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Hot Rize, and John Hartford years before O' Brother would make this music cool.

Simultaneously, the out there groove of the Garcia/Wales jamming - as captured on the Side Trips Vol. I CD - plus the open-ended Dark Stars and other like-minded explorations, primed me with open ears to absorb the late 60's/early 70's electric Bitches Brew style jazz of Miles Davis.  As you probably know, a discovery of Miles Davis can be a home base of its own leading in all kinds of interesting directions, the most rewarding of which may be a step back in time to explore the history and roots of jazz, or a leap forward to check out more modern practitioners such as Medeski Martin and Wood or Bill Frisell.
The song-writing of Garcia's lyricist Robert Hunter combined with Jerry's arrangements puts you at a tuneful peak where peers are few.  As you look out from there you may see the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bob Marley, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch.  Perhaps also Neil Young, Ween and Jeff Tweedy.  Certainly Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes.  There really aren't that many in that category in my opinion.  It's kind of hard to come down from there.

It was the Jerry Garcia Band that I would see first, at the Richmond Coliseum in 1993, completely naive to the scene.  Then, in the summers of 1994 and 1995, I got to see the Grateful Dead a handful of times before Garcia's passing. From that fleeting glimpse, I was made hip to the power of live music, which segwayed symbiotically into the peak of the jamband movement, coinciding with many crazy nights enjoying the likes of Phish, moe., Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain Stringband, and - dare I say - String Cheese Incident.
For me, the late 90's were like the roaring 20's and the trippy 60's all jelly rolled into one.  I continue to love Phish and appreciate how they have taken this compositional and improvisational model and expanded upon it in astounding ways, but when it comes down to it, a deceptively simple and pure Garcia solo on a song like Catfish John wins every time.  As I continue to think of bands that are or have been favorites over the years - My Morning Jacket, the Meat Puppets, Gillian Welch, Dawes, The Stray Birds - there's a very Jerry-like quality or strain running through it all.

When I finally started to play music with a focus on the melodic instrumental tunes of Ireland and Appalachia, it wasn't clear to me if this interest stemmed from something I had listened to previously or from some other motivating factor.  This music was just far enough removed to lessen the intimidation factor and allowed me to learn to "pick" without having to be in the direct shadow of any known musical heroes.  A song of my own, in other words.  But what at first seemed unrelated may have a connection after all.  There's a melodic continuity in Jerry's improvisations and a link to old-timey music that you can really hang your hat on.
As a subscriber to music magazines such as Relix, No Depression and Dirty Linen, my twenties were spent listening to a wide variety of what I'll call "good" music.  A couple years into my thirties I began nurturing a newfound and unexpected devotion to trying to play tunes on tenor banjo.  As I get ready to enter my 40's I'm prepared to put in the work to do what it takes to see music in a more advanced way.  I hope to use the underlying spirit of Jerry Garcia to really motivate and propel this next stage of music learning. The enjoyment will only increase as the mysterious language of notes opens up in strange, new ways.

The Jerry Garcia songbook is basically the American songbook, and it's definitely worth looking into from the perspective of a player as well as a listener.

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