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‘Dear Jerry’: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia

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For most tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadheads, Jerry Garcia’s wizened beard, beatific countenance, Zen coolness and Beat hipster jive are synonymous with the famous band he co-founded. It was the beneficent Captain Trips who helped form the Warlocks in Palo Alto in 1964 with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bob Weir from Garcia’s previous band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, before the addition of Bill Kreutzmann on drums and Phil Lesh on bass, laying the foundation for the Grateful Dead.

Two decades after Garcia’s death on Aug. 9, 1995, the long, strange trip continued. In the summer of 2015, to celebrate the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary, the band played the Fare Thee Well series of five concerts in Santa Clara, Calif. and Chicago. Featuring the “Core Four”—Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—the shows promised to be their last together.

Six weeks earlier, on May 14, 2015, Keith Wortman had managed to bring together a diverse collection of musicians to perform the songs of Jerry Garcia at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. The problem was that, due to their Fare Thee Well contractual commitment, the Core Four couldn’t perform together as a group at Wortman’s “Dear Jerry” tribute concert. But they came really close.

The performers heard on Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia include now-deceased New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint; reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff; jam bands O.A.R., Widespread Panic, moe. and Disco Biscuits; classic rockers Peter Frampton and Jorma Kaukonen; modern country star Eric Church; and bluegrass pickers David Grisman and Sam Bush. Don Was and Buddy Miller led the outstanding house band.

You can’t go wrong with Lesh kicking things off with his band, Communion, which includes his son Grahame on guitar. The opening track, “The Wheel” > “Uncle John’s Band,” a 17-minute excerpt of the original 30-minute concert version, flows timelessly through one of the Dead’s signature medleys. It’s Lesh’s only musical contribution to the album.

Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart join Cliff on a stirring “Fire on the Mountain,” then return for the closing all-hands-on-deck final salvo of “Touch of Grey” and “Ripple,” offering Deadheads a peak at what would come at Fare Thee Well.

Kreutzmann’s Billy and the Kids provide perhaps the album’s overall highlight, first performing the Blues for Allah medley “Help Is on the Way”/”Slipknot”/ “Franklin’s Tower” before being joined by the Disco Biscuits for a rollicking “Scarlet Begonias” > “I Know You Rider” medley, with Kids’ guitarist Tom Hamilton and Biscuits’ keyboardist Aaron Magner leading the way.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Toussaint’s spirited version of “Get Out of My Life Woman,” a song he wrote that was covered by Jerry Garcia Band; the homespun roots offered by Trampled by Turtles on “Brown Eyed Women,” with Ryan Young’s lively fiddle making you wonder why the Dead never incorporated that instrument in their electric arsenal; Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Shakedown Street”; or Grace Potter’s bluesy “Friend of the Devil,” a duet with Bob Weir that has the right combination of country twang and soulful sass. Even the head-scratching choices of Frampton and Church pay some dividends, illuminating Garcia’s interest in jazz-driven soul (Junior Parker and the All-Stars’ «[I’m a] Road Runner,” performed by Frampton) and honky-tonk rhythms (the jaunty, Leon Russell-esque swagger of “Tennessee Jed,” performed by Church).

By the time Dear Jerry gets to its life-affirming “Touch of Grey” finale (“I will get by/I will survive”) and gospel-tinged “Ripple” benediction, the latter’s cosmic entreaty rings true: “If I knew the way/I would take you home.” On this night, friends and admirers managed to return the spirit of Jerry Garcia to his faithful.

Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia is available both as a two-CD, 145-minute version of the concert and a DVD/Blu-ray edit of the four-and-a-half hour show.

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