GOOD OLD BOYS LIVE
Ah, the mid-’70s in California, a post-Woodstock scene where musicians of all stripes felt free to explore whatever music styles appealed to them without much apparent concern for commercial appeal or record sales. For bluegrass, that meant West Coast-based musicians David Grisman, John Reischman, Clarence and Roland White, Laurie Lewis, and many more were exploring exciting new sounds and styles. At the center of this musical era was Grateful Dead lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia, who’d been involved in bluegrass from a very early age in the Golden State.
In 1975, Garcia had already starred on banjo and vocals in Old & In The Way and was collaborating with Grisman on The Dead’s more acoustic records. He also produced the first studio record of The Good Old Boys, which featured Chubby Wise and Don Reno, on The Dead’s own record label. But when the band decided to do a series of live shows, Reno and Wise opted out of going on the road. So Garcia rebuilt TGOB around himself on banjo and Frank Wakefield on mandolin and hit the stage.
This two-CD set captures that lineup, along with Brantley Kearns on fiddle, David Nelson on guitar and vocals, and bassist Pat Campbell, in a live setting recorded with state-of-the-art mics and a Nagra tape deck. The result is a clear-channel signal from almost 50 years ago that highlights a talented group of musicians covering 24 bluegrass standards and originals.
The music here is pleasant and well-intended—classic bluegrass songs with a Left Coast accent. “Teardrops In My Eyes” shows perfectly how this band handled a standard tune, with some excellent bluegrass solos, but sung in a non-traditional style.
This recently unearthed set makes two things absolutely clear. First, Wakefield, with all his eccentricities was an exceptional mandolinist who took first-generation bluegrass mandolin into his own universe and created something special. He roars through Big Mon’s standard “Rawhide” with great right-hand technique and a savant’s knowledge of the fretboard. He takes a simply brilliant solo on “Teardrops” and many other traditional bluegrass tunes, including his immortal original, “New Camptown Races.” His “Jesus Loves His Mandolin Player,” with its oddball cross-tuning and unique cross-picking style, was unlike anything anyone had ever produced on mandolin at the time. For fans of Frank Wakefield, this is a must own recording.
Second, as this show amply demonstrates, Jerry Garcia was a terrible bluegrass banjo player. True, he lost the middle finger on his right hand during childhood, which undoubtedly hindered his right-hand technique. But again and again, his solos here lack any drive or punch. Halfway through his turn at “New Camptown Races,” his solo just stalls out and he has to pick himself up and limp to the finish. Same for the B part in “Rawhide.” But for his fans, he could basically do no wrong and this crowd clearly enjoyed seeing their favorite band’s lead guitarist sideline on a folk instrument.
Good Old Boys Livewill appeal to any bluegrass fan who enjoys the low-key California style of bluegrass. Just don’t let your kids to grow up to play bluegrass banjo like Uncle Jerry. Give them a copy of Rounder 0044 instead. (www.rockbeatrecords.com)DJM