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Jerry Garcia - The Very Best of Jerry Garcia Print E-mail
Monday, 01 January 2007
format:    16-bit CDs (2)
performance:    9
sound:    9
release year:    2006
label:    Rhino
reviewed by:    John Sutton-Smith

ImageGrateful Dead guitarist, vocalist and fearless leader, Jerry Garcia was more than anything a musical sponge – a vast human songbook of rock, blues, country, folk, bluegrass, reggae and R&B.

Throughout his career, Jerry’s myriad solo projects away from the Dead, whether solo, on a side project or with various incarnations of the Jerry Garcia Band, combined to build a formidable live repertoire that spanned classic covers of every genre, mixed with some equally memorable songs from his five solo albums, many of which went on to become an integral part of the Dead's ever-changing concert set list.

The Very Best of Jerry Garcia is a two-CD set that offers the first retrospective collection of Jerry's solo work, both live and in the studio. The first disc covers studio tracks from all of Garcia's solo albums – Garcia, Compliments, Reflections, Cats Under the Stars and Run For the Roses – while the second features some classic live performances, including an unreleased version of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" performed by Reconstruction, a short-lived but memorable Garcia combo.

Compiling any kind of definitive list of Garcia songs is a fool’s errand
at best. Every fan has his/her own passion and expert opinion, and something’s going to be left out or left in that someone will find unconscionable. This collection really serves two purposes: for longtime fans, it’s a neat collection to put in the car or the den, and for young first- time fans it’s a great primer into the mind-boggling scope and magic of Garcia’s music, above and beyond his day job with the Dead.
Sequenced in chronological order, the first disc begins admirably enough with the first five songs, "Deal," "Bird Song," "Sugaree," "Loser" and "The Wheel," from 1972’s self-titled debut, still perhaps Garcia’s finest solo moment. Tracks from the other studio albums include his customary intriguing and eclectic mix of soulful covers like Allen Toussaint's "I'll Take a Melody," Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock," Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby," Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and Clyde McPhatter's "Without Love," to name a few.

The live disc captures performances by numerous JGBs from 1973 through to 1990, but opening with a wondrous acoustic "Catfish John" from Old and In the Way, Jerry’s bluegrass collaboration with Vassar Clements, David Grisman, John Kahn and Peter Rowan, and continuing with two Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band recordings, "Deep Elem Blues" and "Ripple," which to my mind have always managed to capture the same level of thrill and exhilaration as the electric stuff. The Jerry Garcia Band kicks in with covers of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come,” Los Lobos' "Evangeline," a pair of Dylan covers, "Positively 4th Street" and "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," and the aforementioned “Dear Prudence.”

It’s a wonderful collection that reminds us all too clearly of the exquisite musical sensibility and charm Garcia possessed, and his masterful approach to everything from bluesy R&B to delicate bluegrass assures him a place in the pantheon of all American music, far above and beyond the mythic status he has achieved as a rock and roll icon. This thoughtful package documents the reasons why.

The tracks from Garcia’s debut album have never sounded as clear, his pedal steel soaring through the speakers. All the tracks, both studio and live, have been remastered in HDCD and it makes a noticeable difference. Jerry really shines. Perhaps it’s the passing of time, mastering limitations back then or better technology now, but the studio tracks in particular take on a renewed energy. There is a crisp tightness to JGB, a sonic sense of shadow and light, and that is replicated with care and accomplishment here, as the Captain takes us back on a delightful trip down memory lane.

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