It seems that hardly a month goes by without another release of a live album from the Jerry Garcia Band. Nothing wrong with that, given that Jerry Garcia has to be among the greatest multi-instrumental artists in modern music. Sadly, for the music purists, his career has been somewhat overshadowed by his cult status as a founding member of Grateful Dead.
For there was far more to Garcia, the musician, than the ‘Dead. A whole lot more!
Nothing personifies his contribution to multi-genre music, including Americana, than the release of Garcia Live Volume 17, a three-CD, 14-track album. This archival compilation, released on November 12, was recorded at several venues in northern California back in November 1976
The album features the January 1976-to-August 1977 line-up of the Jerry Garcia Band, with Garcia on guitar and vocals, Donna Jean Godchaux on vocals, John Kahn on bass, Keith Godchaux on Keyboards, and Ron Tutt on drums. The Godchaux’s (married ) were Jerry’s Grateful Dead band-mates during this period.
It is worth distinguishing it from another Garcia Live album also released in 2021 (June 25). This was Garcia Live Volume 16, also a three-CD compilation. It came from much later in Garcia’s 30-odd year career and contains the complete 16-song concert recorded on November 15, 1991, at Madison Square Garden, New York.
Only Garcia and bassman Kahn remained from the 1976/77 lie-up. The pair were joined at the Garden by Melvin Seals on Keyboards, David Kemper on drums and backing vocalists Jaclyn LaBranch and Gloria Jones.
The true significance of Volume 17, as opposed to any of the preceding volumes of Garcia Live, is the inclusion of a simply-astonishing version of the southern standard “Catfish John.”
Legendary songwriter Bob McDill co-wrote “Catfish John,” with Allen Reynolds, and it was first released on McDill’s 1972 album Short Stories. The song itself is a story, about a black slave “traded for a chestnut mare” in the Mississippi Civil War town of Vicksburg. It would gain country prominence as a single for Johnny Russell, also in 1972, and it was revitalized in 2002 with a delightful bluegrass version by Alison Krauss and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 3.
In between all this, Jerry Garcia became somewhat infatuated with the song. There are countless recordings – both live and in the studio – of Garcia performing “Catfish John” in various arrangements with various artists, as you might expect from a performer who appeared on more than 50 albums.
It is hard to put a finger on when exactly he first cut the number. But it would probably be on October 8, 1973 –a year after the McDill and Russell releases– when Garcia’s bluegrass supergroup Old & In the Way recorded it during the now famous Boarding House live sessions in San Francisco. The resulting album Old & In the Way was released in 1975 and would become one of the most successful bluegrass albums of all time. But "Catfish John" was not among the 10 tracks chosen for this release. It would not surface as an Old & In the Way number until 1996 when it was one of 14 more tracks from the session released on the album That High Lonesome Sound. It is of course included in disc one of the four-disc Live at the Boarding House: The Complete Shows which appeared in 2013. Critics would hail the Boarding House sessions as the invention of progressive bluegrass. And the ever-inventive Garcia played banjo for these shows.
Grateful Dead, of course, would also do the song, but the most common ‘Dead version is attributed to a studio outtake in 1976.
Until Volume 17 emerged, it was generally considered that the most innovative version of “Catfish John” by the Jerry Garcia Band was on Volume Five, another concert performance - this time in Berkeley, California, on December 31, 1975. And on this occasion, Jerry was joined by his life-long buddy Bob Weir, also an original member of the Grateful Dead. This line-up produced a largely laid-back jamming version which lasts for more than 15 minutes.
It was clearly eclipsed the following year by the November 12, 1976, live recording included in this latest release. The Volume17 version of “Catfish John” is quite extraordinary – one of the great revelations in modern archival releases.
It is also long – just over 12 minutes – but worth every second. It begins with the drum and bass setting a cautious rhythm. Jerry takes over with the vocals, somewhat slow and soft – almost reverential – and when Donna Jean joins, you almost want to cry, such is the vocal purity: Mama says don’t go near that river/Don’t be hanging around old Catfish John/Come the morning I’d always be there/Walking in his footsteps in the sweet Delta dawn.
Like the version with Bob Weir, there is a lot of jamming – almost half of the track. For the most part, Jerry sticks with Keith Godchaux on the keyboard, though drummer and bass-man again provide a perfect segue back to the verse/chorus.
Listening to Garcia live, only serves to establish him as one of the greatest improvisators in modern music. His ability to interpret work – of whatever genre – is quite unbelievable. Volume 17 further illustrates this. One minute, he is doing J.J. Cale (“After Midnight”), the next (well maybe 10 minutes later), he is giving Bob Marley (“Stir It Up”) a run for his money, helped again by old Grateful Dead members - Keith on keyboard and Donna Jean sharing the lead on vocals.
There is no doubt that digital enhancement has served to revitalize tape recordings from decades back, but as any audio engineer would concede: You’re only as good as what you have to work with!
Given the amount of archival material – much of it live – being released in recent years, largely due to the sale of recording rights to multi-national conglomerates, it may be time for the Recording Academy to introduce a Grammy for this category. Odds-on favourite – Jerry Garcia for Volume Whatever!
Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack at a Californian rehabilitation clinic on November 9, 1995. He was 53.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation