Garcia Live Volume Five transports us back to New Year’s Eve 1975 for a night with the Jerry Garcia Band at The Keystone in Berkeley, California. This is an interesting show for several reasons; most notably the addition of Nicky Hopkins on piano. Prior to Fall 1975, Jerry had always toured with John Kahn on bass and Merl Saunders on keyboards when playing outside of the Grateful Dead, but by mid-year he was ready for a change in personnel. David Gans’ liner notes suggest that Jerry and John were either not satisfied with Merl’s playing by this time, or possibly wanted a different sound, so they ‘replaced’ Merl and convinced legendary piano player Nicky Hopkins to join the Jerry Garcia Band. Nicky was living in the Bay Area and playing concerts with Jefferson Airplane and The Quicksilver Messenger Service at the time, and was known for his work with The Who, Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Hopkins was a brilliant musician, but in many instances his substance abuse issues overshadowed his musical genius. His full range of talent including the highs and lows, can really be heard here in this new two-disc release and makes for a very unique three sets of music.
The Jerry Garcia Band in Fall 1975. Greg Errico replaced Ron Tutt on drums for this show.
There really aren’t any songs on the first disc that you would need to add to your ‘Best Of Jerry Band’ playlist, but there are some very interesting things going on that are worth discussing. Thanks to Betty Cantor-Jackson’s recording, the first thing you’ll notice is the sound of this band in the room. The first disc of this show puts you right smack in the middle of local club listening to an incredible bar-band getting loose and warming up. It sounds intimate and energetic, but possibly a little too casual. Nicky begins the show disconnected and out of sync with Jerry. Matt Kelley adds his harmonica playing throughout the show, which is great for a song like It Ain’t No Use, but definitely isn’t an asset when it comes to They Love Each Other. Nicky does seem to get it together towards the end of the first set when he leads a rocking version of his own tune, Pig’s Boogie. All of a sudden it sounds like he just blasted off behind his monitor and instantaneously channeled Jerry Lee Lewis. I would assume Jerry enjoyed the new sound of the piano replacing Merl’s organ, but probably wasn’t feeling Nicky’s incoherent muttering into the microphone in the middle of his verses on Let It Rock and Catfish John. I’m sure his unpredictability is why New Year’s Eve 1975 marks Nicky’s final performance with the Jerry Garcia Band, but Jerry must have liked the sound of the piano because he brought in the Grateful Dead’s Keith Godchaux the following year.
Photo by Ed Perlstein.
Let me take a moment to get sidetracked. I’m obviously reviewing a recording of New Year’s Eve 1975 and not being at the actual concert. I’m listening to and comparing dozens of Jerry Garcia shows recorded throughout his career. I’m sure the first set was perfectly fine for everyone who was lucky enough to be with Jerry at The Keystone on New Year’s. If you’re still reading, you know the Grateful Dead was on ‘hiatus’ in 1975 and although they played a handful of concerts in San Francisco, the future of the band was uncertain. If you add the chatter that was generated when Bob Weir and Mickey Hart (percussion) joined the band on stage later that night, Deadheads were rejoicing that everything was alright and it wouldn’t be long before the Grateful Dead was back together again full-time.
If the first disc highlights the downside of Nicky Hopkins, the second disc definitely showcases the best of what he could bring to the table. For whatever reason, I typically associate ‘Jerry Band’ with lazy Sunday mornings. Garcia Live Volume Five disc two is full-blast like you would expect from a New Year’s show. It’s sounds like a party. Set two begins with a New Year’s countdown followed by How Sweet It Is, which is a nice song to ring in the new year with. It’s like Jerry is thanking everyone who made it out to celebrate the occasion. This is also the point when Bobby from Atherton comes out to join the band on stage, which was more cause for celebration on New Year’s ’75. Weir’s guitar adds another level to the sound that we don’t hear much with the JGB, since Jerry never played with a rhythm guitarist on his side projects. This is a nice jam and the show starts heating up.
Photo by Ed Perlstein.
Mystery Train is where you get your money’s worth with this release. It showcases Bobby and Jerry playing off one another, Nicky is locked in, and Matt Kelley’s harmonica finally sounds like it belongs in the mix. You can typically count on this song to bring the heat and anchor the second set of several of these Garcia Live releases. This version goes into unchartered territory with the addition of a drum and bass solo, into a free form jam that segues back into a Mystery Train reprise. It’s some great improvisational jamming that you should listen to instead of continue reading about.
The band takes another short break here and comes back for a potent third set that begins with Tore Up Over You. This is another great song selection for this ensemble and it serves as another balls-out rock n roll jam vehicle. It’s smoking. Bobby takes over on lead vocals to slow things down with a C.C. Rider that follows. This isn’t the greatest song in the world, but it’s a nice bluesy classic that the band grooves on for over eight minutes and seems to fit nicely in this slot. The show comes to rocking conclusion with Junior Walker’s I’m A Roadrunner which is another semi-psychedelic jam vehicle to send the Deadhead crowd home with good vibes and high expectations of what 1976 would have in store for them.
Purchase Garcia Live Volume Five HERE