Paying tribute to the legendary guitarist
25 years after the legend’s sad passing, we celebrate the life and legacy of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia by taking a deeper look at what he did best: jam.
Garcia was as pure a live artist as it gets – his fancy fretwork and free-spirited improvisation made for an electric live show, and helped push the notion of the jam to the forefront of popular music. His ability to flex his chops to suit multitude styles all while maintaining his own signature tricks made him become every guitar player’s favourite guitar player, with his work still managing to amaze listeners young and old even today. Jerry’s unique tone, proclivity for beautiful melodies and amazing technique is why he is considered one of the best and most influential guitarists to ever play.
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The guitar aficionado’s presence in music began in the ‘60s, where he played in a variety of bands in the Bay Area. He was also known to be a key contributor to other groups’ albums and work, rising to prominence with his work on Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, playing guitar on songs like ‘Today’ and ‘How Do You Feel’, with his contributions being so great that some fans even believe that Garcia should be credited with producing the album.
Following this, his work with the Grateful Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band and other side projects left the world with a dense discography and an endless catalogue of live performances, which, of course, never failed to showcase his insane shredding. His charismatic and beautiful personality was always shown throughout his music, with his unexpected passing in 1995 resulting in massive outpouring of grief from the guitar community as a result.
Today, we celebrate this guitar powerhouse’s love for performing live by taking a deep dive into six magical live guitar moments from the one and only Jerry Garcia.
‘Alligator’ – Grateful Dead at Eagles Auditorium, January 22, 1968
A rock piece from the Dead’s second, more refined album, ‘Alligator’ sounds just as progressive and out there as it did over 50 years ago. Beginning with Jerry’s mystifying voice, as every verse plays out, you can hear Garcia’s guitar slowly take over and begin to seep further into the track. Finally, ’Alligator running around my door’ is cried out one last time before Garcia’s fretboard heroics steal the show and ride off into the wind.
‘After Midnight / Eleanor Rigby / After Midnight Reprise’ – Jerry Garcia Band at Kean College, February 28 1980
A J.J. Cale classic already covered by numerous outfits like Eric Clapton and Blink 182, The Jerry Garcia Band’s take on the classic, is without a doubt, the most unique cover of them all. Split into three sections (including a cover of the Beatles favourite), the 23-minute guitar master class, takes you to a funky start, with brilliant and groovy licks. The middle is jazzy, with a funky synth lead and Garcia’s fuzzy guitar wailing away before smoothly returning to the reprise.
The ending sees Garcia, frankly, just showing off. While his work with Grateful Dead is undeniably better known, JGB allowed Jerry to take his guitar playing to new heights, showcasing more of his amazing guitar prowess – a fact that has never been more evident than this mega jam at Kean College.
‘Sugaree’ – The Grateful Dead, Live at Hartford CT, May 28 1977
The folk rock number takes on a more bluesy tone in the following performance. The tempo changes, within the angelic melodies are really a testament to Garcia’s versatility. His virtuosic technique is also to be marveled throughout out the nineteen minute track, embellishing his playing his slippery licks and fearsome unison bends to masterful effect.
‘Scarlet Begonias’ – The Grateful Dead, Live at Barton Hall, 5 August 1977
With already such a bubbly, hypnotising and identifiable riff, how could Garcia possibly make it any better? His performance at Barton Hall answered that. After beginning the track as per usual, Jerry makes his guitar twang like never before. A pretty melody enters, with his enticing licks accompanied by the entrancing voice of Donna Jean Godchaux making for a healthy mix of chops and melody. The ending of the song is pure bliss – listen to it below.
‘Mississippi Half-Step’ – The Grateful Dead, Live at Toodleoo Capital Theatre, 27 April 1977
This swinging blues number begins with flashes of brilliance by Garcia. At about four minutes in, a beautiful melodic riff enters, floating alongside the same blues feel. You can see the happiness pour out of Jerry and his guitar, as he absolutely goes for it for the cheering Capitol Theatre audience.
‘Dark Star’ – The Grateful Dead, Live/Dead, 1969
Appearing on the first live/album to use 16-track recording, this 18-minute jam is considered to be one of the greatest openers ever, with critic Robert Christgau even christening it as ‘the finest rock improvisation ever recorded’. Beginning with distant guitar playing, the masterpiece conjures up an ethereal feeling, the sun-kissed melodies bopping and weaving throughout the piece.
Every string is carefully plucked, before the groove begins and the track really takes off. With his virtuosic playing and tantalising licks, Garcia makes his guitar sing to the audience, sending the crowd into overdrive as the song plays on to make for a classic Grateful Dead moment.
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