This 1973 release features what is essentially a Bay Area bar band led by Merl Saunders (keyboards) and Jerry Garcia (guitar) during the latter musician's downtime from the Grateful Dead. Along with the two subsequent "encore" volumes, Live at Keystone includes performances drawn from the quartet's July 10-11, 1973, run in the intimate confines of Keystone Korners in Berkeley. With the support of Bill Vitt(percussion) and John Kahn (bass), the pair jams their way through an eclectic assortment of covers and a few equally inspired original instrumentals. The clavinet and Hammond B-3-driven "Keepers" (aka "Finders Keepers") is one such composition from the team of Saunders and Kahn. This funky rocker pulsates through some downright greasy interactions that recall a cross between Sly Stone and Billy Preston. Their interpretation of "Positively 4th Street" -- the first of two Bob Dylan covers -- is laid-back and bluesy, which allows Garcia to stretch out instrumentally between the verses. His impassioned vocals weave between Saunders' alternating murky and billowing organ fills, adding new depths of empathetic noir. Notably, David Grisman's mandolin runs were not part of the live recording, but overdubbed later. Conversely, Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" bops with an infectiously syncopated shuffle that glides along Saunders' ethereal, swirling keyboard accents mimicking the hurdy-gurdy of a calliope. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" is given a languid and slinky workout that is highlighted by some of Garcia's most incendiary fretwork in this collection. Joined in progress is "Space" -- a bit of jazzy free-form which was initially preceded by "Someday Baby" during the July 10 performance. John Kahn truly shines as he barrels in between Saunders' scatological leads and Garcia's trippy guitar runs. This distinct ensemble improvisation recalls some of the Grateful Dead's further-out sonic explorations during seminal mid-'70s performances of "Playing in the Band" and "Eyes of the World." It likewise foreshadows the direction that the Dead would follow on their highly sophisticated and fusion-influenced Blues for Allah (1975). The 1988 CD includes the previously unissued "Merle's Tune" from the July 11 show. This extended instrumental features a more aggressive side of the band, who churns through the changes in a hybrid of R&B and jazz. Again, Garcia and Saunders feed off of each other as they bandy solos and trade funk-filled licks.
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AllMusic Review by Lindsay Planer