Talk From The Rock Room: Jerry Garcia/Merl Saunders: Garcia Live Volume 15 – Live at Keystone Korner May 21, 1971

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Jerry Garcia/Merl Saunders: Garcia Live Volume 15 – Live at Keystone Korner May 21, 1971

The archival release series Garcia Live has been consistently releasing classic Jerry Garcia performances since 2012. The estate has been touching on a wide array of Jerry Garcia’s various band’s and musical excursions. For the current release, Garcia Live Volume 15, the Garcia family has offered a rare previously uncirculating performance, as well a unique on stage line up and performing venue. The date of this concert, May 21st, 1971 finds Jerry Garcia in between Spring and Summer Grateful Dead tours, where the group had just closed the Fillmore East and would soon be travelling to France for a one of show in a haunted castle. Garcia is a master of his instrument and arguably reaching his first peak as a player.

The ambiance of the recording elicits intimacy as the on stage chatter as well as a comfortable musical simpatico is discernable from the tape. The source of the concert according to the release is from a four track soundboard recording. All instruments are balanced and the recording is a joy to hear. Only the intermittent buzz of a funky monitor causes any minor distraction. This miniscule annoyance is noted on the caveat emptor on the back of the release. Featuring Garcia alum, Ron Vitt on drums, and Merl Saunders on organ respectively, there is no bass player on the recording. But we are treated to saxophonist Martin Fierro who makes a guest appearance mid-way through the first set. A spectacular multifarious jam develops of the course of the evening, jazzy in its sensibilities, psychedelic in its approach and free in its attitude. A gumbo of delectable grooves swing from funk to space blues.

There is an early sweetness and directness to Garcia’s playing. These are the days when Jerry couldn’t stop, when shows like this one were what he used to expand his aural pallet. The ‘rock room’ believes Garcia to be armed with his famed Fender Stratocaster ‘Alligator’ on this particular evening. Saunders handles the bass duties on keyboard like Ray Manzarek. If the ‘rock room’ were to devise a label, this is a psychedelic jazz trio. There is no pressure, no deadlines, the band showed up and played for the pure joy of getting it on.

The concert begins with an expansive jam on the Saunders track ‘Man Child’ witch settles on a theme for the evening, open improvisation. The band drifts into an immediately groovy mid-tempo swing. Garcia lays some tentative licks over Saunders quivering Hammond splays. Music slices through gray heavy aired club jazz as a number of tempo changes leave and then return. Around 11 minutes there is a caesura where Saunders and Garcia weave a few notes before returning to the song proper. A ‘mini melt’ down is birthed as the song reaches the seventeen minute mark and Saunders lands the shuttle while Garcia probes for new life. Now that is a way to open a show.

What is listed as ‘One Kind Favor’ is a reading of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘See that My Grave is Kept Clean”, a favorite of most if not all of the bay area folkies come psychedelic messengers. Ron Vitt uses a breeze scat groove and the song pulls right into Garcia’s wheelhouse. The stellar brassy squonk of Garcia’s guitar features bluegrass bends over a brisk walking bass line by Saunders. Garcia notes to get ‘more highs on the organ’ in between numbers.

An additional blues follows with ‘I Know It’s a Sin’, a Jimmy Reed song played by the Grateful Dead on more than one occasion in their early years, the first version being on May 19, 1966. This song remains true to form, with Garcia singing in his sweet early 70’s quivering voice. A beautifully poignant solo is taken by Garcia, returned and reflected in kind by Saunders who lays in on oh so thick and with an extra coat.

Next, a ten minute instrumental reading of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ foreshadows later Jerry Garcia Band set list deep dive’s into the Motown Tamla songbook. A major highlight of the set, the band digs deep and comes up with an overflowing well of crystal clear spring water. Vitt keeps things busy with a series of thoughtful rhythms. Garcia quotes the melody line with honky string bends held up to glisten by Saunders lustrous Hammond swells. At about three minutes in Fierro jumps in with both feet and slays it with a taffy pulled sax solo. For those who don’t know Garcia has some of the funkiest rhythm playing on the planet and here it is on full display! Following Fierro, Garcia pulls the rip cord and enters into his own glistening solo spot. Easy highlight of the opening set and rare!

A unique to the performance jam referred to on the release as ‘Keystone Korner Jam’ follows next and is exactly that, a jam.  Garcia starts thing off with an ethnic sounding rhythm to which Vitt adds cymbal bell hits. Immediately Saunders and Fierro jump in to what becomes a flashing red light of a groove. Once the three principals of the band twist the ends of their respective wires together the jam immediately elevates. Reminding the ‘rock room’ of 1979’s ‘Reconstruction’ excursions this jam straddles the fence between earth and space and definitely encourages ass shaking.  Around five to six minutes Garcia hits on melody everyone jumps eagerly on before steering the ship quickly into a hallucinatory melt down. Garcia and Fierro get strange before Vitt and Saunders ignite a jittery groove out of the chaos. Post eight minutes Fierro takes the wheel and directs the foursome into a high tempo screaming improv. This time Fierro encourages a deep meltdown as the band dynamically falls into a weightless twinkling evening. The band rises again and Jerry deflates then gently into a perfect landing. The ball handling by the group here is wonderful, you can really feel the band listening to one another.

A song that would soon become a staple of ‘Jerry Garcia Band’ concert follows with a spacious performance of ‘The Band’s, ‘The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down’. Garcia sings endearingly and the band responds in kind reaching an emotional ending. Jerry announces the band is going to take a ‘break for a while’ and so will we.

The second set and disc two begin with the longest jam of the night and instrumental version of the song ‘Save Mother Earth’ from Merl Saunders 1972 LP Heavy Turbulence which both Garcia and Vitt play on. A slightly sinister prelude, leads to a sneaky arrangement. Garcia’s guitar has a serrated edge, contrasting Saunders smooth recitation of the lick. By five minutes the song has started rolling toward the horizon with Fierro wailing and at one point quoting ‘It’s Your Thing’. At eight minutes Garcia enters ready to duel with Saunders. Immediately the song morphs, rhythms rebound, Garcia deconstructs the inside and the song becomes reborn……..yet again. A syrupy floor slows the song and at ten minutes something odd is developing. Diversions and short cuts aside, by sixteen minutes Fierro keeps his endless faucet of melodies on full flow, soon the song sprouts flowers. By nineteen minutes the crown can be heard cheering the band along. The group has found it, the mysterious, gestalt linkage, and the crowd is along for the ride.

Garcia then unravels with a stirring solo that starts low around twenty minutes on the neck and stays there. Lending a muddy funk to the brightly developing groove. Saunders throws out some pitch bending swells to segue into his solo location. A groove similar to Chicago’s “It Better End Soon’ begins during the home stretch, but per usual gets very shifty before concluding another expansive series of jams! Yea.

A super rare cover of Jimmy Rodgers ‘That’s All Right’ follows as a resigned boozy sway, with Garcia singing blue and lonesome. The first break moves into a sturdy march with a crisply overdriven Garcia Strat exploring the songs changes. Fierro peeks through the shades here and there until he takes a spin around the block as well. A couple songs on this release I wish would have stuck around the Garcia sets as they fit the JGB template splendidly. Merl gets involved with some melody swells and distorted pitch playing, before all three melody makers collaborate into a fitting conclusion. Perfect, the makeup of this jam matches the vibe of the performance which is smoky bar light, sunglasses at night cool.

A major rarity and highlight of the release is the group’s attempt at David Crosby’s ‘The Wall Song’ hailing from his If I Could Only Remember My Name album which had been released in February of 1971. On the studio recording Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann backs Crosby with Jerry’s main lick central to the cut. This version surpasses twelve minutes and bears witness to the improvisational possibilities Garcia saw inside the song’s framework. While tentative in places, when the band picks a compass point the jam begins to reveal its secrets. The song begins as a pulse in syncopated time, and brick by brick begins to reach skyward. Garcia’s vocals are breathy and his approach uniquely his own.

Following the first three verses the collective uses the outro space to breech the wall.  Around five minutes Fierro blares a number a screeches and glissando’s down the rhythmic bricks. Garcia skates in at seven minutes on a current of feedback, using it to develop an edgy improv. Garcia’s tone here is reminiscent of the ‘David and the Dorks’ shows from December of 1970. Fierro returns close to nine minutes and hits on a beautiful play on the theme which gets Vitt excited. The jam soon transmutes into a dramatic and kinetic experiment, with Fierro and Garcia initiating a quivering freak out. Garcia lays a hand on the bricks making sure the structure remains before the band joins back in, concluding their journey with a smashing of the wall. The crowd responds in kind.

The concert and recording concludes with another song that would become a ‘Garcia Band’ staple, the Sun classic ‘Mystery Train’. Even missing Garcia’s partner in crime John Kahn on bass this one tears down the tracks leaving a trailing black cloud behind. A bit shorter than others, this early reading still shakes like Presley’s leg with a plethora of JG’s honky tonk string bending. Garcia bids the crowd farewell, introduces the band and says, ‘that’s it!’

With the unbelievably large amount of archival material that Jerry Garcia created over his extensive career there will always be music to be studied. Each performance date, a signpost to a new and unusual path and an obvious connector to Garcia’s past as well as the future. Every note Garcia played a topographical peak or ridge line leading to an even higher summit or new discovery of creativity. With Garcia Live Volume 15, we as listeners are privy to a previously unknown performance and are offered a glimpse into a path never traveled, pulled from historic air and fed into our hi fi’s. We are thankful.



  1. A great review. You are spot on with your descriptions. This is a great early slice of Garcia-Saunders.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Bob! Keep jamming!