Back in Boston in the late 1980s there was a weekly radio program called "Dead Ahead," which played Grateful Dead concert tapes along with a few interesting album tracks. It was on that show that I first heard music from the Keystone recordings by Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia. Specifically, what I first heard was "Mystery Train." And I loved it. It was quite a bit different from what Jerry was doing with the Dead, but of course in a way just as good. And now, twenty-five years after I first heard that tune, Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings is being released.
This 4-disc box set includes the recordings from the two shows they performed on July 10 and 11, 1973, including seven previously unreleased tracks. Yes, this music is from 1973, the year that is considered by many Grateful Dead fans (myself included) to be the best year of Dead concerts. And even though the Dead did seventy-two concerts that year, Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders performed somewhat regularly at the Keystone, keeping the group low-key (and unnamed). And when Jerry wasn't playing in either of those bands, he played in a bluegrass band called Old & In The Way. Did he ever sleep? Part of what made the Grateful Dead so great in 1973 was the jazz-like way the band approached the material that year, often stretching out in jams that were fairly open-ended. And that same spirit is heard throughout these Keystone recordings. There is really only one somewhat short track here, that being "That's All Right, Mama."
There are a lot of extra goodies in this box set. Keystone concert calendars from 1973 are included on the back of each disc's sleeve - a nice touch. There is also a 28-page booklet, with photos and notes, a poster of the July 1973 concert calendar, a coaster, a button and a scratchbook disguised as a matchbook. But it's the music that is key here.
The first disc opens with "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and Jerry sweetly singing, "Put on your red dress, baby, because we're going out tonight." I've always thought this song was a bit silly, mainly because of the phrase, "your wig hat." Right off the bat, we get that first groovy jam. "Keepers" is a seriously funky instrumental, fantastic fun, and unlike most of what you've heard from Jerry Garcia. An awesome groove that you can dance to. It's one of the tracks that was previously unreleased.
"It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" is one the Grateful Dead did a few times. Jerry gives a fairly soulful delivery in this rendition, which has a bit of a slower groove than Bob Dylan's original. And holy moly, listen to Jerry on "I could not get across" - he does something with his voice I don't think I've ever heard before. This track was previously unreleased.
Jerry Garcia covering Rodgers & Hart? Yup. Not only does this band do a cool version of "My Funny Valentine," but they really jam on it. At 18:14, it's the longest track in this set. They do a jazzy instrumental rendition, with some really nice work by Bill Vitt on drums. Jerry really gets into it, and there are some truly phenomenal moments. The first disc ends with that great groovy version of "Mystery Train."
1. Hi-Heel Sneakers 8:14
2. Keepers 7:54
3. The Harder They Come 6:23
4. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry 6:21
5. It's Too Late (She's Gone) 7:47
6. My Funny Valentine 18:14
7. Mystery Train 11:37
The musicians on these discs are Merl Saunders on keyboards, Jerry Garcia on guitar and vocals, John Kahn on bass, and Bill Vitt on drums. As mentioned, David Grisman plays mandolin on "Positively 4th Street."
Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings is scheduled to be released on September 25, 2012 through Concord Music Group.