Jerry Garcia Band Feat. Clarence Clemons Highlights ‘Garcia Live Volume 13: 9/16/89 Poplar Creek Music Theater’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

At least upon first glance, Garcia Live Volume 13 seems like a welcome return to fertile territory after the sharp left turn of the previous edition with its gut-wrenching performances from the bandleader, along with the courageous and creative caterwauling of Sarah Fulcher. But a close inspection of this booklet’s action photos reveals a daunting presence on stage next to the hirsute, graying Garcia, none other than Bruce Springsteen’s buddy Clarence Clemons.

Regularly working on the West Coast while the E Street Band was on hiatus, ‘The Big Man’ had appeared with the Grateful Dead in the months prior to this early autumn JGB show, lending extra impetus to a reinvigorated group for which titular leader Jerry otherwise set the tone through much of 1989. And just as he did for the parent ensemble that year, the affable guitarist/songwriter/vocalist functions as a lightning rod of inspiration throughout these two sets, simultaneously igniting the band’s chemistry and furthering the seamless incorporation of the tenor saxophonist into the core ensemble’s fluid interplay. 

Everyone involved is deeply engaged, energetic and enthusiastic, so the playing transcends the ostensible familiarity of this setlist. And, as essayist Blair Jackson also points out in his well-rounded and articulate (not to mention passionate) prose, Clemons’ pedigreed playing moves Garcia to stretch himself, not just through his impassioned guitar or his singing—although the vigor in both is fully on display during staples of the repertoire like”They Love Each Other” and Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”–but quite probably in song choice as well.

As the aforementioned Dead/Garcia historian points out in writing remarkable for its specificity of information and insight, the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is a novel exhumation (in absolutely frenzied rendition) and the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” was played only rarely this particular year. But in part because they’ve so nimbly navigated those tunes and their contrasting structures and motifs, JGB also plays Los Lobos’ “Evangeline” and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with fresh rhythmic and melodic nuance. 

The addition of Clemons only heightens that counterpoint. Like the group’s own roots, the tenor saxophonist’s niche resides in r&b/soul music, where extended spotlights come second to fills like those on, appropriately, Chuck Berry’s“Let It Rock” But his participation also highlights the solidarity of the Jerry Garcia Band as a well-honed ensemble: the ebb and flow of this two-set performance outside Chicago is readily discernible over the course of the fourteen tracks comprising a double CD set or as a single digital file. 

And, notwithstanding the pertinent disclaimer, the continuity of the near-pristine sound quality (courtesy recordist John Cutler and mastering engineer Fred Kevorkian) mirrors the immediately-recognizable stylization of this Garcia Live series artwork. As a result, the content and the packaging of Volume 13, taken as a whole, makes for yet another distinctive cull from the vault.

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