Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Surprising Jerry Garcia Tribute from One of His Heroes

In 1964, Jerry Garcia and some friends took a road trip east to hear bluegrass music. Among those bands was the legendary Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, whom they got to see more than once on that trip. Almost fifty years later, that band’s mandolinist Jesse McReynolds has recorded an album of Grateful Dead songs – some circles just won’t be broken. Still vital at 81, McReynolds doesn’t sound anywhere near his age, vocally or picking-wise, alternating between long, soulfully expansive solos and the incisive, edgy playing that’s influenced literally generations of musicians. Here he’s joined by a crew including the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s David Nelson on guitar, Randy Brown on bass, Stu Allen on acoustic guitar, Shawn Apple on drums and assorted other players. For those who find the concept of this album absolutely mystifying, the real shocker is that it actually works. Which it should. McReynolds got into the Country Music Hall of Fame on the first ballot: his presence here brings out the best in the supporting cast, who don’t waste any notes throughout a surprisingly varied mix of bluegrass, oldtimey Appalachian folk and straight-up, mellow Americana rock. On his solos, Nelson does an impressive job evoking Jerry’s signature, meandering, scale-based style without going completely over the top.

McReynolds characteristically nails the emotion of every vocal here: the plaintive lament vibe of Black Muddy River – which perfectly captures the folk song feel that Jerry was going for – along with the lonesomeness of Bird Song – an eight-minute version with terse interplay between mandolin and acoustic guitar – and especially the bitter cynicism of Loser, done here far more tensely and faster than the original. Likewise, The Wheel gets a counterintuitively vigorous treatment, layers of hypnotic electric guitar against McReynolds’ long, spiky, gently wintry staccato solo. Some of these songs evoke the Dead on the Reckoning album, especially a swinging version of Ripple. Others rock out a lot more than you’d expect from this crew, notably a darkly pedal steel-tinged Stella Blue and a violin-fueled Fire on the Mountain with yet another devastating vocal from McReynolds – he really gets these songs. By the time they get to Deep Elem Blues, they’re completely in their element: McReynolds makes it clear that it’s a cautionary tale!

Not everything here works: a brand-new co-write between McReynolds and Robert Hunter sounds like a mid-70s outtake, and the big anthemic concert singalongs Franklin’s Tower and Deal swing and miss when they try to the energy up a notch. But their version of Alabama Getaway is a knockout, done as a straight-ahead country shuffle rather than trying to imitate the second-generation Chuck Berryisms of the original. Who is the audience for this? Deadheads, obviously, as many as are left after all these years. And for that matter any fan of the new crop of Americana bands, from Mumford & Sons to Deer Tick. The Dead may be history now, but the music never stopped. This one’s out on the independent Woodstock Records label.

November 10, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment