Cats Under the Stars: Blair Jackson on ‘GarciaLive Volume 11’
The author, Jerry Garcia biographer and all-around Grateful Dead chronicler digs into the latest JGB archival release.
In August 1999, Viking Press published Garcia: An American Life, Blair Jackson’s definitive biography of Jerry Garcia. Jackson first wrote about the Grateful Dead back in 1983, with the book The Music Never Stopped, which, in turn, led him to publish the beloved, informative Dead fanzine, The Golden Road, alongside his wife, Regan McMahon.
While Jackson has gone on to other writing and editing ventures over the years, he’s retained a passion for the good ol’ Grateful Dead, penning additional books such as Grateful Dead Gear, serving as producer on compila tions like the So Many Roads box set and contributing liner notes to various projects including the latest GarciaLive release.
GarciaLive Volume 11 presents the Jerry Garcia Band on Nov. 11, 1993, at the Providence Civic Center in the middle of their final East Coast tour, two years before Garcia’s death. The Providence show opens with “Cats Under the Stars,” and Jackson writes, “I always viewed it as a theme song for the group—after all, it’s about a band layin’ it down funky onstage night after night.” Other highlights include the band’s versions of Norton Buffalo’s “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox,” Van Morrison’s “He Ain’t Give You None” and Smokey Robinson’s “When the Hunter Gets Captured by the Game.”
Looking back at Garcia: An American Life 20 years later, how do you view the experience of writing it and then sharing it with the world?
It’s probably the project I’m most proud of in my whole life. It was done pretty soon after Jerry died. Viking contacted me toward the end of ‘96 about doing it, and I immediately said yes. Then, I began the interviews and all that kind of stuff, and it was still an extremely raw time for everybody. All these interviews were incredibly emotional. People were crying and remembering stuff they hadn’t really talked about much, if at all. For instance, I spent an entire evening with John Dawson of the New Riders and his wife at their place in Mill Valley, and they just poured it all out.
One of the many cool things was that everybody loved Jerry. They all had almost nothing but great things to say about him, even though they were aware of his foibles and his shortcomings, just as Jerry was himself.
After writing about the Dead and loving the Dead as long as I had, it was also extremely cathartic. I had to go through his life and death in my own terms while writing about it. I remember I had a good cry when I finished writing about him dying in the book.
It also set the stage for many of the liner notes and magazine articles that I’ve done—much more so than The Golden Road, which was always very niche, even though it was loved on its own level. So, it really opened the door for everything that I’ve done about the Grateful Dead since, in a way.
Your latest such endeavor is contributing the liner notes to GarciaLive Volume 11. How would you characterize the musical relationship between the Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead?
It’s interesting because the Jerry Band obviously never ascended to the commercial heights that the Dead did. That’s partly because the Grateful Dead have that incredible chemistry—each person was so integral to the overall Grateful Dead sound that you couldn’t imagine one without the other, and they had this incredible body of work that inspired a culture to grow around it.
The Jerry Band was really a lowkey showcase for Jerry to play and sing tunes he liked without the pressure of meshing in that Grateful Dead way. That is not to say that Melvin [Seals], John Kahn and all these people aren’t important—obviously, they were integral to the sound and all that. But it was much more relaxed on all levels than the Grateful Dead. What’s cool about it is that if you really liked to hear Jerry Garcia play guitar, you really got to hear Jerry Garcia play guitar.
With JGB, there were very rarely vehicles to go outside and jam in that classic Grateful Dead spacejam way. There were usually one or two songs that allowed them to go slightly outside—you might hear it in “Don’t Let Go” [which appears on GarciaLive Volume 11] or “Lonesome and a Long Way From Home.” But mostly he was staying within the lines of a song but taking them far out, in terms of modern extrapolation on a theme.
My favorite quote about Jerry Garcia is from David Kemper, the drummer. I’m not going to say it correctly, but the gist of it is: “People wanted to be in the same room with Jerry.” That was really the appeal. You felt like you were connecting with him on a different level than the Grateful Dead because the songs he was choosing were a lot of ballads and love songs and Dylan tunes. They were tunes that he connected with, lyrically, in terms of their mood, but that didn’t have the weight of the Grateful Dead on them. And I don’t mean that in a negative way.
Since you mentioned David Kemper: One of my favorite quotes of his described how Jerry would make tempo changes but would never articulate that directly. Instead, David would figure it out based on how Jerry counted off the songs. Can you talk about his role in the band?
He was just so versatile. He was just loose enough to let Jerry stay loose but also had enough of the fundamentals and drive of his own to keep it on track too, if Jerry was going to wander a little bit. He had to be on top of that at all times to keep it swinging, so to speak, because if it didn’t swing, it was going to thud and a thudding Jerry Garcia Band show was not good.
He contributed that swing on certain tunes so the music came alive in a way, in part, because you didn’t hear John Kahn being quite as prominent as he was in the early days of the band. So it depended more on the drums to be the rhythmic underpinning. You also find Melvin playing some really nice rhythmic stuff when he’s not soloing. It’s almost like a band full of rhythm instruments, with Jerry layering on top of that. But even he liked to play rhythm occasionally when Melvin would solo.
Speaking of those Melvin solos, the first set in Providence closes out with “Deal.” I was at this show and I really enjoyed the big, beefy organ sound during an era when the Grateful Dead’s version of “Deal” often sounded a bit thin to me because Vince Welnick wasn’t playing a B-3.
In ‘79, when Brent [Mydland] first came into the band, it also coincided, more or less, with Jerry going away from the piano sound of the Garcia Band. Keith [Godchaux] and Nicky Hopkins had been in [that role]. Once Melvin joined, there was a long time where both the Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead were dominated by organ.
So it didn’t really surprise me a ton that when Vince came into the band [during the fall of 1990, after Brent passed away], they said, “We’re sort of done with this for a while.” They did try to give him a B-3 patch, which was pretty bad at the beginning, but it got better over the next couple of years. It was just a way to break it up a little and get some new colors and textures in the group, just like when Brent came in—he added all sorts of new colors and textures that had not been there during the Keith era. I thought Vince was a breath of fresh air. I agree that, for the first year or two, the synth textures he was using could be described as thin, but he got better as he grew into the job. If he hadn’t introduced “Samba in the Rain,” I think people would have given him more slack.
I listen to my fair share of Jerry Garcia Band. However, I had a couple experiences during the second disc, in which I was called out of the room and, when I returned, I had to reposition myself to think, “Where are they?” I really enjoyed those moments of disorientation.
It’s the tunes on this particular one. When you get to something like “When the Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” that they didn’t play that much, it has that kind of loosey-goosey feel, like they don’t know it completely but it’s still cool. “Dear Prudence” also always had its own vibe—there’s so much space in between the notes and in between the beats that you weren’t exactly sure where they were going to go with it. That’s always fun.
Jerry Garcia liked being on that edge of unknowingness, where you’re not exactly sure whether everybody is going to come in at the same time or whether he is going to come back in time to get back to the verse. That was part of the fun for him, or part of the challenge at least. He’d probably say, “No, I don’t do it on purpose. I’m trying to get back on the beat.”
What are some of your favorite moments on GarciaLive Volume 11?
I really like “He Ain’t Give You None.” It’s an interesting tune and another one they didn’t play that much. It was a basic, raw, bluesy mid-‘60s Van Morrison song, and Jerry had a real affinity for that kind of thing.
“No Bread in the Bread Box” has got an interesting rhythm and then, the way it gets into the chorus, it sounds like The Band. It’s also got an Americana vibe to it with the lyrics, which made it feel like a good match for Jerry, vocally and musically. It’s one of those songs that fit Jerry like a glove.
This article originally appears in the September 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.