‘Before The Dead’ Captures Jerry Garcia’s Formative Years (BOX SET REVIEW)

In roughly three and half hours of live and studio recordings, captured in various ways at a variety of locales between 1961 and 1964, Before the Dead documents the late Jerry Garcia’s formative years as a musician. Overflowing with meticulous attention to detail in sound, text and graphics, this 4-CD/5-LP box set reveals how this iconic musician nurtured those attributes that eventually stood him in such good stead as titular leader of the Grateful Dead, the namesake of the Jerry Garcia Band and the catalyst for the many other collaborative efforts over the course of his thirty-plus year career.

If Before The Dead proves anything, it is that this man’s passion for playing, as well as his insatiable curiosity about a diversity of styles, traditional and otherwise, was well-established long before the coalescence of the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia’s voracious appetite for learning sustained him not only with the iconic group, but in his solo work too, not just with JGB, but in collaboration with like-minded musicians such as David Grisman. In fact, the willfully eclectic approach of this multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and singer might be his greatest distinction, if only because it underlies the intent of virtually every project he participated in.

Those distinctive traits are evident from the very earliest inclusions here. 1961 recordings featuring his future lyricist Robert Hunter, like “I Was Born Ten Thousand Years Ago.” offer ample evidence of Jerry’s precision in picking, a disciplined approach all the more crucial on acoustic instruments, sans the various effects on electric ones. Meanwhile, the stock-in-trade of bluegrass, that is, to make music of the songs, is  already beginning to flower, revealing early indications of the way the compositions were, often as not, a means to an end for Garcia’s work with the Grateful Dead and only a little less so with his own band or endeavors such as The Legion of Mary.

Before The Dead foretells why Jerry would return to a style epitomized by Ralph Stanley’s “If I Lose,” over a quarter century later with players who appear in the later selections of this box set. Sandy Rothman and David Nelson, among others, were collaborators for the Bill Graham-curated run on Broadway in 1987: an occasion at a juncture in his life Garcia was reminding himself of the fundamentals of his musicianship. As these eighty-four tracks unfold, it’s well to note too how fully evident is the mirthful, gregarious side of this cultural figurehead’s personality: reverent, but not overly so, of the sources of his performances, Garcia’s hardly self-conscious as he educates himself, his accompanists and their audiences on this treasure trove of genuine Americana and this attitude also pervades the infectious delight that informs his own playing and that of the various  personnel lineups ; in these early days, Jerry forthrightly assumed the lead in a performance by the strength of his personality as well as his musicianship.

These first inklings of the man’s persona are inextricably intertwined, as essential to these proceedings as the palpable sense of community that emanates from the music within Before The Dead. As with the best shows of Jerry Garcia’s future bands, there’s little if any sense of separation between audience and performer, but instead an inclusive atmosphere that, at its best moments, becomes an interactive experience for all involved. With the chronological progression of the content into 1963 then 1964 (just before the transformative discovery of the Beatles), a certain element of suspense begins to manifest itself in this evolutionary tale, thanks to the careful curation of co-producers Dennis McNally and Brian Miksis.

In that context, the meticulous annotation, including McNally’s erudite personal notes, is as indispensable as the plethora of photographs. And the inclusion of Neil Rosenberg’s ‘listening notes’ is likewise vivid:  as much as the track sequence sketches the long-term perspective of Jerry Garcia’s influence on contemporary music, the combination of words and pictures suggest ever so strongly how celebrity—an the aversion to which Garcia developed and maintained as his public profile ascended– was anathema to the purism of intent in learning, performing and instructing others about these songs.  

In his understated but nonetheless boundless enthusiasm, we hear Garcia as teacher on “Railroad Bill,” coaching and otherwise encouraging those present to sing along, which they do, somewhat tentatively, but more confidently with each refrain. Such is the earliest manifestation of a  generosity of spirit Jerry would offer his various bandmates in later years as a means of fostering group improvisations. And by the time “Sittin’ On Top of the World” appears in this limited edition, Garcia’s penchant for healthy deference to co-musicians becomes apparent, even as the confidence Garcia displays in playing and singing belies such unduly modest nonchalance (not to mention an endearing vulnerability) so often on display in his golden years.

In the performances of the Hart Valley Drifters and the Black Mountain Boys, the engagement of the eventual figurehead of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, David Nelson, along with others of similar contemporary pedigree, like Herb Pedersen (Chris Hillman and Jackson Browne among others), elevates the intensity. The various sources of these recordings assume a continuity, sonically preserved via Fred Kevorkian’s mastering, that is a staple of well-conceived and purposefully-executed archiving such as this set.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that, like the best performances of the Grateful Dead and JGB, the virtues of the music as displayed on the first half of Before The Dead become amplified and extended in the second: the momentum is deceptive, but it’s there, inexorably increasing to an emphatic conclusion that, given the historical context here, seems almost predestined.

The scholarly approach that produced this Round Records’ item does not in any way diminish the pleasure it can afford to those who delve into it. A fledgling musician, for instance, might well utilize its contents as the academic resources to not only learn the music herein– always keeping in mind the potential scope of that education—but also as means to further research other musical sources (and those students of the art have the benefit of knowing how far the main subject here took these lessons).

And, of course, for both died-in-the-wool Deadheads as well as novice fans circa Dead & Co., the most casual curiosity might very well lead to that cursory glance that will be sufficient enticement to become deeply immersed in this bounty of material


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