It is now more than thirty years since three of the finest musicians to ever strap an acoustic instrument over their shoulders decided to engage in after-hours jamming sessions in a private Californian studio. What transpired over two nights would turn into musical gold!
In February 1993, ground-breaking mandolinist David "Dawg" Grisman and hotshot guitarist Tony Rice were in Grisman’s Mill Valley studio recording tracks for Tone Poems, a unique instrumental album which saw the pair duet using purely vintage instruments. To break their routine, Grisman invited his long-time friend and musical collaborator Jerry Garcia over for some late-night unrehearsed jamming between the trio.
Resident engineer David Dennison knew his boss Dawg liked to keep a recording of what went down in his studio, so he hit record on the tape deck. What he captured – warts ‘n all – over the nights of February 4 & 5 would be released seven years later on an album titled The Pizza Tapes.
It is fly-on-the-wall, seat-of-your-pants music like you are unlikely to hear again.
This recording serves not only as a remarkable legacy to three musical legends but a wonderful insight into just how their individual genius was able to provide such a unique interpretation of classic folk and bluegrass music.
Interspersed between the 13 tracks are excerpts of warm conversations between the trio, together with false starts and sheer mistakes. They are delineated by “Appetizer” titles in the album rundown. You soon get the drift when the first Appetizer includes an opening riff gone wrong, accompanied by the predictable Garcia quip: “I done fucked it up already.” Grisman soon relates his pleasure and expectation: “Trip seeing you guys together man.” Rice responds: “Shoulda happened a long time ago.” And, as the recording continues, Garcia - clearly enjoying every moment - randomly declares: “I’m having a great time.”
And one must presume that somewhere in the two nights of recording, someone orders a pizza. Well, not exactly!
The reason for the title The Pizza Tapes has become something of musical folklore. The story goes that a pizza delivery man either stole Garcia’s cassette of the sessions or was given it as a bizarre tip. Anyway, songs from the unreleased recordings soon turned up on East Coast radio and at Garcia’s various concerts – either Grateful Dead gigs or with his own acoustic setup – where fans would produce bootleg CD’s for signing.
Eventually, Grisman – by now boasting his own record label Acoustic Disc – decided enough was enough. "After years of being pissed off, I decided to bury the hatchet ... and make these tapes available." And in-keeping with his passion for recording just about anything that goes on in a studio, the album’s release on April 25, 2000, included Appetizers et al.
Ten years later, Grisman's online label Acoustic Oasis released The Pizza Tapes: Extra Large Edition which comprised 170 minutes of music. This included 16 previously unissued alternate takes in addition to the original master takes in their original sequence.
Sadly, Garcia was not around for the original release. He died of a heart attack in August 1995, at the age of 53. Rice made public his gratitude for being able to work with Jerry. “I wish there were words that would express my gratitude for being a part of it. Perhaps just knowing that Garcia might be somewhere saying ‘Dawg can we hear that take again’ will suffice,” he wrote at the time of release.
In fact, it was Rice’s wife Pam who would contribute to what is seen as the most significant song on the album. For it is believed she insisted that Garcia perform “Amazing Grace” during the session in what is meant to be the only recorded version of him singing the gospel classic.
The informality of it all is very much reflected in Garcia’s treatment of not only his infamous meandering guitar riffs but his earthy, inventive vocals, not only on “Amazing Grace” but same again on another gospel standard, “Drifting Too Far From The Shore.” And the accompanying impromptu reciprocity between Grisman’s mandolin and the two guitars has to be heard to be believed on both tracks.
The same goes for the nearly four minutes of musical preamble, listed as “Shady Jam.” which precedes a most sophisticated interpretation of the traditional Appalachian folk song “Shady Grove.” No, this jam is not the sort of jamband stuff Deadhead’s adored when Garcia let rip with the GD. This is straight out of the newgrass songbook masterminded by Grisman and Rice – just another example of Garcia’s cross-genre brilliance.
Grisman scholars will note that this version of “Shady Grove” is not the first from Dawg and Jerry. Over the years, Acoustic Disc has released a number of albums featuring the pair, the latest in 2023. And “Shady Grove” was the title track of their first, released 1996. It also included another version of a song from this session, the Irish standard “Louis Collins.” And another Pizza Tape song “So What” was also the title track of a 1998 Grisman/Garcia release.
The Pizza Tapes sits in the middle of Grisman’s disc library, one of the most remarkable in acoustic music and certainly as a cross-genre collection.
The jewel in the output of Acoustic Disc Records is Grisman’s production of live material by Old & In the Way, the bluegrass supergroup he formed in 1973 with Garcia, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and John Khan.
The short-lived band’s self-titled debut album would prove to be the biggest selling album in bluegrass history, though it was released by Rounder Records and not by Grisman’s outfit which was responsible for the supergroup’s remaining five albums, including the definitive Live at the Boarding House: The Complete Shows. This is a four CD album which contains 55 tracks, 14 of which were previously unreleased, from two shows at the Boarding House in San Francisco on October 1 and 8 in 1973.
So, perhaps the true significance of the The Pizza Tapes is that it was recorded twenty years to the month that Garcia and Grisman were churning out history-defining progressive bluegrass before die-hard fans at a San Fran dive. This time they were just a trio, with Tony Rice – the man who would be known as the Jimi Hendrix of newgrass – on board. But the same musical inventiveness still soars through every track, wonderfully enhanced by unrehearsed live chit-chat Dennison captured with his record button.
Rice would die on Christmas Day 2020 at the age of 69. He made headlines in the music media for all the wrong reasons in 2023 when Rolling Stone magazine inexplicably left him out of its list of 250 Greatest Guitarists of All Time – Garcia was 34th.
So only Grisman, now 78, still remains and thanks to his musical imagination and business acumen, the purity of acoustic music – whatever the genre – lives on.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Musical Appreciation