Right off, mention needs to be made of the artful and spot-on styling of the album’s packaging. Well-Matched: the Best of Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia is presented as a matchbook, complete with worn strike strip on the back. So it’s not surprise the fiery singing and soulful musicianship on the disc itself comes out blazing when ignited by the Play button on your stereo.
From gigging together around the Bay Area’s small clubs in the early 70’s, to Saunders helping Jerry re-learn how to play music after Garcia’s diabetic coma, the two were life long friends, and this collection is a testament to the bond that united them. Well-Matched showcases classic numbers such as the Phillips/ Parker rumbling “Mystery Train,” Dylan’s piercing "Positively 4th Street” and Jimmy Cliff’s reggae gem “The Harder They Come,” in a fashion that any music lover can get behind.
What this collection is not however is anything new to longtime fans of either participant. Most already own the three disc Live at Keystone and that setlist makes up the majority of Well-Matched. There are a few more obscure treats thrown in though, such as “Lonesome Avenue” taken from a live KSAN recording. It captures the deepest of Garcia’s playing and singing of the blues while Merl’s organ lounges behind, setting the scene. Not to mention the pristine version of “I Second That Emotion,” another shining gem. But with such a long history of past collaborations, I was hoping for some new unearthed material…alas not to be.
That said, the music presented here is superb and will prove especially profound for those recreational fans that aren’t as familiar with the duo’s past efforts. Garcia always seems to be musically smiling while he is onstage with Saunders, and his playing is precise while Saunders’ keys babble along, coaxing Garcia to hit the right notes for maximum effect. It’s quite a different ride from his Grateful Dead days. If you’re new to this musical tag-team, grab this album as a jumping off point, you will not be disappointed.
For more info see: jerrygarcia.com