Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s ‘Almost Acoustic’ Gets Special Re-Issue (ALBUM REVIEW)

Comprised of excerpts from 1987 concerts at The Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s  Almost Acoustic deserves its newly-ready availability, whether on compact disc (identical to the previously-released item, right down to the packaging with its scholarly, informative insert) or the colored vinyl version issued as a 2018 Black Friday/Record Store Day item. The quality of the recording is as impeccable as the musicianship and, in turn, the selection of material.

Consisting primarily of  folk traditionals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”and “Diamond Joe,” the album also highlights songs that were consistently woven in and out of Garcia’s career as both a solo artist and with the Grateful Dead, including “Oh, The Wind And Rain” and the Garcia/Hunter classic, “Ripple.” The latter tune isn’t all that far removed from “Deep Elem Blues,” but, in this context, a step removed from the tradition, it comments on the connection, one that was implicit throughout Jerry’s career: music was to be explored, not arbitrarily categorized.

The titular leader of the Dead assumed that approach no matter the setting which he was playing, but the format of Almost Acoustic is particularly noteworthy. The collaboration(s) represented another step in the process Garcia enacted to fully regain his chops in the wake of his serious health issues the year prior to these shows. And, with even greater retrospect, that aspect of the title enhances the warmth of his embrace of tunes he’s known for years as he collaborates with players of a comparable intimacy, including long-time tourmate bassist John Kahn; as on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9 (Standing on the Corner),” among others. The affection between the musicians is wholly reciprocal and permeates their renderings of the music–and no doubt the atmosphere of the venues–with a friendly air fully in keeping with the hootenanny tradition to which it hearkens.

There’s a palpable sense of a decades-long conversation resuming among these participants, so the absolute absence of a technique for its own sake here isn’t all that surprising, But, it’s no less gratifying, especially when in play on a somewhat less-than-familiar tune such as “Spike Driver Blues.” A collective humility also permeates more common genre covers like “Oh The Wind and the Rain” and “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” these renditions tapping into their timeless quality through the intricacy of the interplay: the interaction between the leader, David Nelson (New Riders of the Purple Sage) and Sandy Rothman is perfectly sublime, for instance, on “I’ve Been All Around This World.” And if the level of engagement sounds like it’s peaked on that cut, hear how the incorporation of Kenny Kosek’s fiddle brings an extra level of delight to “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.”

Not surprisingly, Almost Acoustic reflects the Grateful Dead’s long-term commitment to stellar audio work. The depth of the sound, sourced in John Cutler’s original recordings and maintained through Joe Gastwirt’s mastering, reflects a serious level of technical investment, the most striking aspect of which is preservation of the mutual affection Jerry Garcia and company shared on the California stages: it radiates as fully from the singing as the playing on tracks including the penultimate “Gone Home.”

Originally released the year after it was recorded, then reissued in 2010 (along with its companion piece Ragged But Right), this 30th Anniversary edition of Almost Acoustic is as fully representative of the late cultural icon’s devotion to his craft as his loyalty to roots. As such, it is required listening, particularly for those who appreciate the man for his integrity as a well-rounded musician.

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