Jerry Garcia / Merl Saunders

Garcia Live, Vol. 12: January 23rd, 1973, the Boarding House

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While the Grateful Dead were reaching new heights of popularity and cultural relevance in the early '70s that would have been more than enough to keep most musicians busy, their guitarist/vocalist kingpin Jerry Garcia was cooking on all burners, playing in private sessions and pickup gigs outside of his legitimately famous main gig. While the Dead were playing in stadiums to thousands during this time, it wasn't uncommon to find Garcia also showing up to play at dive bars to tiny audiences. Garcia Live, Vol. 12 is a document of one such night, captured at a small San Francisco supper club on a Tuesday night in early 1973. By that point, Garcia had developed a musical kinship with keyboardist Merl Saunders, who played at times with the Dead but collaborated with Garcia more often on record and at smaller gigs like this one. On this date, Saunders and Garcia are more grounded in blues- and soul-rocking than the often-cosmic psychedelia of the Grateful Dead, but the creative chemistry of the band still explores the outer reaches of improvisation. The dutiful rhythm section of bassist John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt provides a sturdy foundation for Garcia's wiggly leads and Saunders' rich beds of Hammond B-3 organ. The show is stolen, however, by vocalist Sarah Fulcher. In addition to a career that included work with rockabilly and punk acts, Fulcher made a single solo album in 1972 and sang some backup vocals on the Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood around the time she was hopping on-stage for unrehearsed jams in tiny clubs with Saunders and Garcia. Throughout the three-hour-long sets, Fulcher's vocal improvisations are as strong and imaginative as her bandmates' instrumental improv, stretching a fragment of the Soul Survivors' "Expressway (To Your Heart)" into a 15-minute journey or ad-libbing new lyrics as the band vamps on the classic groove of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." Garcia handles lead vocals on songs that would be standards in his solo repertoire like Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," but he also pulls out surprises like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and the slow-burning blues of Doc Pomus' "Lonely Avenue." The relaxed energy and loose performances capture the magical connection Garcia and Saunders found in these low-pressure gigs. The powerful addition of Fulcher's presence makes Garcia Live, Vol. 12 a mandatory footnote to the scope of Garcia's creative output. On an electric night like this, it truly sounds like the band would never stop playing if it was up to them.

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