Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings
Artists: Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia
Released: September 25, 2012
Reviewed: September 23, 2012
Keystone Companions/The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recording, recorded live on July 10 and 11, 1973 at the Keystone Club in Berkeley, California, beautifully captures the magical musical friendship of keyboardist Merl Saunders and guitarist Jerry Garcia. The Fantasy Records lavish four-disc set, is scheduled for release this Tuesday (September 25th) on the heels of the 70th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s birth and includes seven previously unreleased tracks, a special booklet featuring vintage photos, liner notes by Grateful Dead expert David Gans; a poster, a coaster, button and “scratchbook” (replicating the design of the original album’s promotional matchbooks.
The incredible band featured Saunders; Garcia, guitar and vocals; John Kahn on bass; and Bill Vitt on drums. Virtuoso David Grisman added mandolin to the classic Bob Dylan number, Positively 4th Street. The mix of songs ranged frm Saunders originals to covers of songs by Jimmy Cliff, Junior Parker, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Rodgers & Hart, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudp, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Don Nix, Dan Penn and Dylan.
San Franciso-born keyboardist Merl Sauders had been writing and performing in New York before returning to the West Coast. Producer Nick Gravenites offered him studio work that included playing with guitarist Jerry Garcia, already at the helm of one of the world’s most popular rock bands, the Grateful Dead. “Garcia reminded me of (jazz guitarist) Eric Gale,” Saunders recollected, “Anything he played was very musical. He knew how to do a rhythm on any kind of tune – gospel, blues, jazz. I was amazed.”
Saunders also helped Garcia expand his harmonic knowledge and even showed him some Art Tatum runs. “He taught me music,” Garcia said of Saunders.
By December, 1970, a weekly jam session featuring Saunders, Garcia, Kahn, and Vitt had become a weekly gig at San Francisco’s Matrix. Of course Garcia was already a major figure in musical counterculture as lead guitarist for the Dead, so he kept this new band low-key – so much that it never really had a name (although it was referred to as The Group at times). As Garcia said, “I couldn’t take the pressure of being a double celebrity. It’s a drag just being it once.” (That didn’t stop the itinerant Garcia from having a third band as well, Old and In the Way, with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, and Vassar Clements).
Live at Keystone, originally released as a double LP, was recorded by Grateful Dead associates Betty Cantor and Rex Jackson. Additional material was released as Live At Keystone, Volumes 1 & 2 in 1988. Keystone Companions/The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings assembles the original recordings and presents them, remastered, in the order in which the songs were performed at those two shows. The repertoire spans blues, rockabilly, jazz, funk, Broadway, Motown, two Bob Dylan suns, and Jimmy Cliff’s immortal The Harder They Come. Some songs appear twice, providing the opportunity to hear how the band kept it loose and fresh.
As Gans notes, “This music is as exciting and satisfying 40 years later as it was on the day it was made.” Boomerocity couldn’t agree more.