Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia
The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings (vinyl release)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
What Jerry Garcia fan wouldn’t dream of taking a time machine back to the weekend of July 11-12, 1973 to hear the music he, keyboardist Merl Saunders and a tight rhythm section lay down in an intimate club setting? The four-CD set of this stand was released in 2012 along with the double vinyl edition that cherry picked the best tunes. But now, record lovers can experience the entire repertoire of this Live at the Keystone show as the full reproduction of all the tunes recorded over two nights makes its vinyl debut on a six-platter box along with updated photos and liner notes.
As those who have heard the remastered CDs know, the pristine recording already sounds warm, inviting and enticing, putting you on stage with the quartet as they wind through extended soul, blues, country and jazz covers. This analog version captures that vibe perfectly, making its LP appearance especially enticing to music fans with turntables and quality speakers.
In 1973, Jerry Garcia was working at peak form. He had just finished the legendary Europe ’72 Grateful Dead dates, had recorded Wake of the Flood with the band, was involved in a successful side project with Old & In the Way showcasing his bluegrass roots, and released his first solo album to substantial acclaim. His collaboration with veteran keyboardist Saunders pushed the guitarist into soul/jazz territory. The duo covers songs from a diverse variety of sources ranging from the obvious (Bob Dylan) to the less-so (Smokey Robinson, Elvis, and even Rogers & Hart), allowing plenty of room to stretch out with distinctive solos often more focused than some of Garcia’s rambling, long-winded, psychedelic work with the Dead. While he won’t get mistaken for Jim Hall, his guitar work on “My Funny Valentine” (two versions, both over 18 minutes) is startling in its subtle dexterity.
A great band featuring Saunders gently but urgently pushing Garcia with sweet yet propulsive organ also helps. Bassist John Kahn’s melodic and forceful playing is almost as powerful as that of the Dead’s Phil Lesh, and drummer Bill Vitt, the last living member of this quartet, plays with grace, fire and verve, urging on the other three yet never stealing the spotlight. The entire ensemble gels on all 24 songs that, even with the four-hour playing time, never gets tedious.
This classy vinyl box includes a poster, refreshed notes by Dead expert David Gans and photos new to the larger format package. The combination of the natural organic qualities of the medium with the similarly rootsy appeal of the music creates a perfect way to enjoy this wonderful display of Garcia’s—and band’s—talents, with audio that truly makes you think you are there.