Thursday, January 11, 2007

Garcia's Alpine show bittersweet

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Finding two old San Francisco newspapers in a trunk recently reminded me of the sorrowful day in 1995 we learned of the death of Jerry Garcia and of the occasion six years before when my wife Sue and I saw him perform for the last time.

The newspapers, the Examiner and rival Chronicle, were sent to me by friend Bill Cook, who was working in California at the time and knew I was a big fan of Garcia, lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead, possibly America's greatest live band.

Of course, Garcia's passing on Aug. 9 at age 53 was a significant event, covered extensively by radio and television, so I was already aware of the news those papers contained when they arrived on my doorstep a few days later.

The Examiner was the first to carry the story, headlined simply "Jerry Garcia dies," which appeared at the top of the front page just hours after the musician was found dead in his room at a Marin County drug rehabilitation center.

Published in the morning, the Chronicle had to wait until the following day to unveil its Garcia coverage with a story and pictures taking up three-fifths of page one, under the headline "Jerry was a true San Franciscan." The story was also the focus of a special section contained in that day's edition.

While the stories recalled many memories, the final time we saw Garcia in concert was not at a Grateful Dead show. The innovative guitarist took his Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy on Sept. 15, 1989. Sadly, the show proved to be Garcia's last appearance in Wisconsin.

Fans of the Grateful Dead, famous for legions of faithful followers as well as hits like "Touch of Grey," and "Truckin'," know that Garcia's immense talent could not be contained within one of the most well-known bands to come out of the psychedelic San Francisco scene of the 60s.

Besides a repertoire of songs often separate from the Grateful Dead's setlist, Garcia brought an opening act featuring the acoustic work of Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman.

With Weir, himself a founding member of the Grateful Dead, on guitar and vocals and Wasserman on bass, the duo opened their set with Robert Johnson's classic "Walking Blues." They added "Festival," "The Winner," "K.C. Moan," "Artificial Flowers," Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and "Shade of Gray." That was followed by a jam comprised of "Easy to Slip," "Victim or the Crime" and "Throwing Stones."

The crowd being suitably warmed up, the pair ended their set with "Misty," as the sun went down and the late summer temperatures began to fall.

Garcia's band, up next, included stand-up bassist John Kahn, David Kemper on snare drums, acoustic guitarist David Nelson and Sandy Rothman on mandolin and dobro, as well as a special guest in the person of Clarence Clemons, sax man for the E Street Band. Their first set opened with a blistering version of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)," followed by Peter Tosh's "Stop That Train," Dylan's "Forever Young," "Run for the Roses," "Like a Road," "My Sisters and Brothers" and "Deal."

The second set was equally impressive: "Harder They Come," "Mission in the Rain," "That's What Love Will Make You Do," "I Second That Emotion," "Waiting for a Miracle," "Don't Let Go" and "Lonesome and a Long Way From Home."

Clemons, the saxophonist known as "The Big Man" in Bruce Springsteen's band, showed a symbiosis with Garcia during an incredible version of the Jesse Stone-penned "Don't Let Go," near the end of the night's program.

Still, it didn't matter what songs Garcia played. He demonstrated his remarkable improvisational skills, moving through folk, reggae, rhythm & blues and traditional selections with ease. Revealing a side of his musical personality not always evident at Grateful Dead performances, Garcia clearly enjoyed himself. The audience clearly enjoyed the show as well. Although thousands of people were in attendance, it was like spending a pleasant evening with a close friend.

As we walked to our car in the cool night air following the concert, we couldn't have known this would be the last time we would see Garcia, one of the great treasures of American music.

That was the sad revelation of coming across a couple of yellowed newspapers in a rarely opened trunk.


Anonymous said...

Hey Steve,

Thanks for letting me know about your blogsite - I've been enjoying the heck outta reading your writing!

Jim Pierron

Anonymous said...


Thanks for that.