For two nights in 1973, frequent musical partners Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia met for their regular gig at the Keystone in Berkeley, CA and really locked it in. The full recordings of both nights now are available for the first time in a four-disc box set.
What do we call it when two top musicians– one an icon, one underrated– come together outside the brightest lights and get down to just performing music? As an initial, analytical matter, one can’t help but mention the Traveling Wilburys, but the feel’s all different here. This isn’t a tongue-in-cheek supergroup experiment shrouded in quasi mystery; rather, it’s two professional musicians doing work as such in a Bay-Area coffeeshop. Top-tier talent playing almost nothing but popular and classic tunes: The world’s best cover band.
These two nights unfold just like you hope they would. The first is a sold, well-rounded outing by the quartet– that’s John Kahn on bass and Bill Vitt on drums– over a thick lounge set of Motown, reggae, Dylan, and blues; attentive, neither jammy nor poppy. That it somehow feels unremarkable is a compliment The group doesn’t peak too high or drag too low. They did what they came to do, which is play the hits, and that’s all you can ask from any cover band.
The second night measurably builds on the first. The band is both tighter and looser, always in a good way. When they play the more composed tunes, they largely stick to the script, adding jaunt and sparkle to keep things lively. Extended numbers become familiar blues jams or else approach a true jazz feel. While Kahn’s complimentary bass reminds you why he’s a Garcia stalwart, it’s Vitt’s drums that help elevate this second night into something really special. Like the first night, the first half of the second night covers the Saunders-Garcia touchstones– Dylan, Motown, Cliff, the blues– each different and tighter than the first time around. Here, though, they become but a platform for the second half of the night. The penultimate “Like a Road Leading Home” feels nearly transcendent in context, and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” provides the triumphant finish to the two-night stand, delivering as all cover bands must, even if they almost broke character in the prior song.
I’m not really qualified to opine on the Saunders-Garcia relationship, except to say that it surely is underrated, even as the very vibe they seek to achieve is one of understatement. The booklet that comes with the set does a good job of setting the scene, and I’d just be copying from it here.
Calling this ensemble a cover band might seem like a slight, but listening to these recordings helped to evolve my thinking on that subject. Towards the end of the first night I realized that these guys were properly cognizable as a cover band, and given their talent, song selection, and execution, they had to be the best cover band of all time.
As for the sound itself, Garcia brings his GD electric guitar tone into this intimate setting (and around which Kahn’s bass plays and supports with very nice familiarity). Saunders’ keys are at times guilty of that now-anachronistic sound of many 70s and 80s synths, but the substance of his playing is comfortably in the R&B/jazz/light funk realm, and once the listener makes the slight adjustment, these gigs sound just as timeless as the pieces the band is covering, which is a testament to the quality of their song selection in the contemporary moment.
I do think this set would make a good entry point for anyone looking to get into Saunders, Garcia, or their collaboration. It’s far from definitive, with respect to Garcia, but the music is extremely listenable and, given the broad familiarity of the songs, accessible. Knowledgeable fans will enjoy these recordings too, because they’re a testament to the consistently high level at which these guys played even on casual nights out at the local coffee house and because the overlapping setlists offer a fun little comparative experiment across two consecutive nights of live performance.