The cover informs us that this three CD package of previously unreleased music was recorded on Garcia’s 1974 break from his Grateful Dead activities on Dec. 14th and 15th of the Northwest tour with his short lived Legion of Mary group. The band included longtime jazz/blues keyboard/vocalist cohort Merle Saunders along with bassist John Kahn, Elvis drummer Ron Tutt and reed player Martin Fiero.
The shows eschewed Dead material for Garcia’s usual eclectic batch of soul, blues, roots rock and for this tour some very jazzy selections. Only a molasses slow “The Night They Drove Dixie Down,” one of the least interesting selections in the weekend’s repertoire, is repeated in this 2 ½ hour recap of every song played in three sets. The average track time runs about 12 minutes with the opening funky “Boogie On Reggae Woman” clocking in at 18 and Saunders’ blues/jazz “Wondering Why” stretched to nearly 25. Needless to say, only the most Garcia/Dead dedicated fans are the audience for this, and for them it’s a fascinating if somewhat inconsistent delight.
Garcia was arguably at the height of his improvisatory prowess in this era and his guitar runs are as sweet, technically sharp and extended as anything he did with his full time group. The material is wonderfully diverse especially when he works in jazz changes during nearly 14 minutes of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” That’s a song he would never be able to include in a Dead concert which shows Garcia stretching himself, and his terrific group, to new and challenging frontiers. Some of the exploratory jaunts don’t gel as well as others, but in general these musicians are remarkably well locked in with Garcia’s loose groove.
The audio is straight from the soundboard and has been brilliantly remixed to make you feel like you are on stage as these jams are going down. Each instrument is crispy recorded and easily identifiable with the bass and drums particularly clean.
Those taking this leap know what to expect, so even if these lengthy interpretations aren’t for everyone, they show a seldom heard Garcia backing band firing on all cylinders, pushing its frontman into some truly exhilarating performances.