If you asked me to pick the greatest guitarist of the heroic era of rock music, the period that started with psychedelica and ran out of gas as punk came along, I’d take two who shared so many characteristics – Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia.
In an era when Hendrix set the standard for technical virtuosity, the innovative use of sound and emotional content, and when Clapton, Beck and Page defined what it meant to be the lead guitar, Allman and Garcia played a slightly different game. They were first and foremost melodists; their lines are those of jazz players, especially Sonny Rollins, the modal era Miles and Paul Desmond.
I’m thinking about this tonight because I’m digging into the newly issued box set of recordings Garcia made with the organist Merl Saunders at the Keystone, a club in San Francisco, in July, 1973. Of course, Garcia was the lead guitarist for the Grateful Dead. But in a very productive year, he not only played a lot of shows with the Dead and maintained a bluegrass band, he made time for a residency at the Keystone as part of a stripped down four piece.
And what a couple of nights it was! Garcia and Saunders were great together; unlike the Dead, what I hear on this set is economy, even as most pieces roll for at least six or seven minutes and many of them for 10 minutes or more.
If you remember the era like I do, you know how rare it was for a guitarist to even get started on an interesting idea, let alone carry it along, make something of it. And almost impossible was the kind of soaring beauty found on a Fillmore East. I’ve listened to that album as much as any I own, and it still amazes me that there’s absolutely no slack, no hesitation across a long night’s playing. The Allmans never seem to strain or stretch; they just thunder along joyously, with the rest of us as passengers.
(Aside: it must have been really hard to be a guitar player, circa 1973. Standards were very, very high, but limited too – you were expected to mostly play a rock that leaned heavily on blues licks. It was as if everyone had to run the hundred meter – and you could tell how far short you fell every time you turned on your local f.m. rock station. The next generation, the punk, power pop and noise guitarists, won by changing the rules. )
In fact, you can think of Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings as the west coast counterpart to The Allman Brothers Band Live At Fillmore East. No, it’s not nearly as grand as Fillmore East, but there is still an airborne feel to the music. One of the secrets, I think, is that Garcia was not an especially rushed player. Paul Desmond used to joke that he’d received an award for being the slowest alto player in jazz, and listening to “My Funny Valentine,’ the Keystone equivalent to “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” I hear Garcia doing what Desmond did – even uptempo, (“Valentine” is played as sort of a waltz); he picks and places the notes like someone arranging a vase of flowers. There’s no sense that there’s a flood of ideas barely being held back. The playing is not slow, it’s unhurried.
The other thing is Garcia and Saunders’ exquisite taste; Keystone is mostly covers, and the band ranges across rock n’ roll, soul, blues, funk, reggae, Dylan and two exquisite full-on jazz readings of ‘Valentine.’ This is music that starts from the proposition that everything’s up for grabs, everything is grist for the mill. There’s nothing unusual in that today, but back in 1973 the music played by ‘rock’ musicians was often stratified along racial and class lines. I remember when some of this music originally came out on vinyl not knowing a lot of the tunes, even though I was pretty deep into the rock music of the era.
A couple of other notes: the set has several tracks that see release for the first time, and it’s been remastered, though I can’t speak to the sound because I bought the download version and have been listening on my laptop. Also, it’s a bargain – a little over $6 a disc. Cheap, for a hero at work.