Heads & Tails: Tale of the Tape – “Don’t Let Go/Think”

“Don’t Let Go” / “Think”
February 5th, 1988
Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Santa Rosa, CA

For fans of the Jerry Garcia Band, the group’s first show of 1988 contained fairly momentous news. To civilians, the return of Jesse Stone’s 1958 R&B hit “Don’t Let Go” to the Garcia Band’s setlists after a three-year absence might not appear that way on paper (or screen), but it brought the group’s deepest jam vehicle back into action. The Jerry Garcia Band had always stretched out on a songbook of R&B, gospel, blues, and Bob Dylan tunes, of course–that was why they existed–but “Don’t Let Go” was in a different class, and perhaps doubly so on its reawakening.

But the master tape of the Jerry Garcia Band’s opening night in Santa Rosa is a bit flawed. Part of “That Lucky Old Sun” is missing. “Tangled Up in Blue” isn’t there at all. And yet there’s this “Don’t Let Go.”

The earliest properly-named iteration of the Jerry Garcia Band in 1976 could be heard as an extension of Garcia’s long-running group(s) with Merl Saunders, with tunes like “Don’t Let Go” and George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You” standing equal chances of rolling into extended far-out places comparable to the Grateful Dead’s jams. But like Garcia’s day gig with the Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band got a little less weird during the 1980s — except for “Don’t Let Go,” which remained something of a sanctuary, where the rhythm section would start to swing, and Garcia would flip into the jazzier modes that had largely disappeared from his playing with the Dead.

By the beginning of February 1988, Garcia was already having an adventurous year. The Grateful Dead were near the top of the charts, and the guitarist’s January had included collaborations on two very different spots on his own musical spectrum, joining Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and others for Santana’s Blues for Salvador benefit in Oakland and, in New York, recording a session for harmolodic jazz titan Ornette Coleman’s Virgin Beauty. With the return of “Don’t Let Go,” Garcia rediscovered a place that could be both at once, a party jam gone questing with the avant-garde.

The jam on the first “Don’t Let Go” since late 1984 starts like a lot of Jerry Garcia Band jams, bouncing through bright turns, before Garcia widens his phrases and drummer David Kemper opens up the groove. Magically, and it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the moment it shifts, Kemper and bassist John Kahn are swinging, Garcia and organist Melvin Seals are finishing each other’s modal thoughts, and Garcia is playing in an intimate style that he doesn’t normally tap anymore. Suddenly, it’s late in the evening at the Matrix or one of the Keystones, last call is approaching, and the musicians are doing what they’re there to do, finding the new place just beyond the beyond. Snip off the head or tail of the tape even further and you could safely call it jazz or psychedelic rock, and few would argue.

“Think,” a 1965 blues hit for Jimmy McCracklin, had returned a few years earlier after its own decade-long absence. (Like Garcia, McCracklin had also been a charting songwriter in 1987, when Salt-N-Pepa scored a hit with his ‘60s single “Tramp.”) The song fit comfortably into the gospel-y iteration of the Garcia Band that emerged during the 1980s featuring Gloria Jones and Jacklyn LaBranch on vocals, and tonight it makes its own fire. Garcia snaps off a first burning solo, and–after Seals takes a chorus and change–the bandleader goes into overdrive, accelerating into the pick-fanning employed at the peak of the Dead’s versions of “Morning Dew.” The hour is still late, the smoke is still hanging in the air, and Garcia and the band are sneaking in one more song before closing time.

– Jesse Jarnow