The Jerry Garcia Band Garcia Live: Volume Eight- Bradley Center, Milwaukee 11/23/91 (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Because of Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, the decade of the Nineties casts a long shadow over the legacy of the Grateful Dead. Yet it’s not just the actual passing of the iconic band’s titular bandleader, but his painfully inexorable slide toward his eventual demise that’s so disheartening. Add to that the unwieldy scene that arose around the Dead in the years following their mainstream breakthrough with “Touch of Grey” in 1987, and the ‘drag energy,” as Garcia would call such debilitating phenomena, surrounded the parent group turning its touring operations increasingly unwieldy.

Little wonder the guitarist and songwriter, freed of many such encumbrances, would find such solace in working with his own band. Thus, it may be no coincidence in the least that, as Dean Budnick relates with such common sense in his essay within the booklet in this package, the Jerry Garcia Band found its collective groove, as represented in this 1991 recording, after some nigh on sixteen years of varying lineups. This eighth installment in the archival series carries the additional distinction of offering a clutch of fresh entries into the repertoire residing next to those otherwise well-established.

The setlist from this performance at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, WI on 11/23/91 is wisely configured to simultaneously allow the band to establish a groove and invite the audience to make itself comfortable. Thus, a familiar framework for the ensemble as well as the attendees evolves in the form of “Cats Under the Stars” to initiate the proceedings, the first of a small handful of original tunes, including “Reuben & Cherise” and “They Love Each Other,” leading to the first set-closer in the form of  “Deal;” a regular JGB cull from the Grateful Dead canon, this isn’t the most extended cut within the digi-pak, but it may be the most incisive. Obviously not in any hurry, the ensemble nevertheless will not allow itself to become complacent, thanks to the metronomic but otherwise insistent rhythm work of bassist John Kahn and drummer David Kemper.

Meanwhile, Melvin Seals finds all the spaces to fill particularly with his organ playing while as the leader solos with as much precision as fluidity. In such complementary accompaniment in lieu of extended improvisation, the  keyboardist performs a much different function in this context than his long-time predecessor Merl Saunders and the relish Seals displays in his role is as obvious as that of vocalists Jacklyn LaBranche and Gloria Jones: while it may be true, particularly at this relatively late date in Jerry’s life, that their singing is designed to compensate for the lack of strength in Garcia’s own, there’s no denying how their voices shimmer.

Their presence too may well reflect Jerry’s abiding admiration for Bob Dylan who long employed a similar complement of vocalist and whose “Tangled Up in Blue,” long a Garcia Band staple, is a fitting capper to a night recorded by John Cutler,  contained in its entirety on the two CD’s of Garcia Live Volume Eight. Self-effacing as he always was, Jerry Garcia offers nods to his peers by covering  Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally,” in a slow-percolating arrangement, while also proffering a gently mournful reading of the Band’s  “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” As knowing as are those selections, though,  the fresh insertion of Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” delivered an impressive surprise to the audience in Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, its optimism as bright (revealing of Garcia’s natural mindset) as its gait is upbeat.

No doubt did Norton Buffalo’s chipper “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox” served much the same purpose. The composer of the latter gained a name for himself on harp in the Steve Miller Band some fifteen years prior to the date of this recording, but Buffalo also conducted a respectable career under his own name, so the inclusion of his whimsical number ratifies Garcia’s discerning ear for material that fit the perpetually eclectic concept of the Jerry Garcia Band. Such affirmation wasn’t really necessary though as a graceful reading of Canadian folk icon Bruce Cockburn’s “Waiting for a Miracle.” precedes “That Lucky Old Sun,” in an overt display of the gospel roots of this JGB lineup, groundwork for which appeared earlier in this show in the form of  “My Sisters and Brothers.”

The affection and insight of Melvin Seals’ quotes in the Budnick’s essay mirror the music he plays with this group and vice-versa, the circular nature of which quality certifies Garcia Live release choices like Volume Eight. This series continues to thrive on its own terms, not just as a successor to the prior campaign (dubbed Pure Jerry) or even as mere corollary to similar ongoing efforts on behalf of the Grateful Dead. In its uniformly excellent combinations of content and packaging, it’ a distinctive, ongoing expression of inspiration taken from a truly singular musician.

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