Jerry Garcia Band Hits Triumphant Peaks at French’s Camp On Box Set ‘Electric On The Eel’

Taking its name from the original event(s), Electric On The Eel contains three full electric concerts from the Jerry Garcia Band’s visits to French’s Camp in northern California. The six compact discs document a period in which this iconic musician was, arguably, as fully and joyfully engaged in such musical endeavors as any other time prior to his untimely passing in 1995.

First performing at the semi-secluded venue at the request of old friend and counter-culture icon Wavy Gravy (in a fundraiser for the man’s Hog Farm initiative, co-produced and promoted by Bill Graham), the 1987 appearance also featured a performance by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, something of a dry run for the Broadway shows also produced by the late rock impresario the fall of this same year.  Though the box set proper focuses on the electric sets, an Acoustic On The Eel bonus disc is also available exclusively at independent record stores and through and it complements the primary contents, of a piece with those other six CD’s by dint of its own individualized color sleeve and corresponding disc graphics.

With the rest of the band hot on his heels during “Deal”, Garcia blazes with his guitar to finish first set on this initial visit. This rousing climax comes after emotionally and stylistically touching almost all the bases, not to mention the collective heart of the audience, with each of the tunes, from “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” to “Run For The Roses.”  Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” and “My Sisters and Brothers” likewise speak to the shared sense of community as effectively as “Forever Young.” Meanwhile, in purely personal terms, “Get Out Of My Life Woman” has more than a little to do with Garcia’s own life: it doesn’t take much probing to hear how autobiographical these song choices are.

The effect is similar, albeit slightly less so, during the second half of this show, at least in the wake of  “I Shall Be Released:” it’s hard to hear this one of a few Bob Dylan songs Garcia doted on without thinking of the serious trauma the man endured the year before. But Los Lobos’ “Evangeline” is as much of a cathartic romp as “Think” is a bluesy one, the logic there as obvious as following Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” with the standard “That Lucky Old Sun;” Garcia made no bones about his admiration for great songwriters and their work, a recurring theme of his solo activity rendered even more obvious here by a decision to close the show with “Tangled Up In Blue.” This performance of the Nobel Laureate’s tune is, in its own way, as uplifting a climax as that of the previous portion of the show.

And, it is no less an affectionate tribute to its author for its quirky its arrangement, either, prompting the thought that the inclusion of the acoustic opening set this particular year ultimately generated extra momentum from the stage. Such revelations also arise from the Acoustic on the Eel CD through its mix of originals, traditionals and assorted works of icons like Mississippi John Hurt: in sum, the setlist constitutes a reaffirmation of that source of comfort and (re)discovery Jerry Garcia found in this music, at this particular juncture of his life (in the wake of the coma he suffered 1986 and just as the burgeoning popularity of the Grateful Dead reached critical mass via “Touch of Grey” the year after). Lovingly rendered with with these musicians–bassist John Kahn, guitarist/vocalist David Nelson and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Sandy Rothman–“I’ve Been All Around This World,” “Ripple” and “Spike Driver Blues,” like the rest of the ten cuts, radiate equal parts warmth and nuance.

Garcia subsequently brought the JGB back to this scenic local on June 10, 1989, and on August 10, 1991. The middle of the three appearances illustrates how novel inclusions of material set in stark relief the more familiar song choices.  “I’ll Take A Melody ” offers a comforting intro/greeting similar to that of “How Sweet It Is,” while the appearances of “Mission in the Rain” and “Waiting for a Miracle” conjure a more reflective tone. Further befitting the passage of two years time, the precision of Garcia’ s soloing on “Don’t Let Go,” one of the more extended numbers, is as fluid as the transitions of the band (in addition to the ever-present Kahn, including keyboardist Melvin Seals and drummer David Kemper).

Recorded a year after the stellar performance in Hawaii captured on Garcia Live Volume 10, the 1991 set is noteworthy as much for the selection of material as the musicianship. A rare take on the gospel standard “I Hope It Won’t Be This Way Always,” gets its first release in this box set as does Eric Clapton’s “See What Love Can Do.” But of comparable significance, at least in purely musical terms (as well as self-referential value) is The Band’s “Twilight;” a highlight of the latter portion of this final set, this is one of Robbie Robertson’s final truly great songs, only released as a single in 1975 and on for the iconic group’s Best of… compilation in 1976. It is an ideal choice of song for Garcia, performed here with the melancholy soul that defines his best moments, its touching atmosphere accentuated by the angelic singing of vocalists Gloria Jones and Jacklyn LaBranch

The depth and clarity in John Cutler’s recordings of all these performances belie the caveat about sound quality on the back of the box (on the flip-side of the deceptively detailed cover art). But it’s also to the credit of the many other individuals subsequently involved in preparation of this release–curators and family as well as technical personnel–that Electric On The Eel is now preserved for posterity; in its enclosed booklet, the first-hand accounts of real-time experiences,  juxtaposed with vivid photos, in conjunction with the brilliant music, confirm these occasions captured both the essence of the Grateful Dead bond with its audience and the ambiance of the pastoral environment in which they took place. This package is very much the same labor of love.

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