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Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia

Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings

Fantasy

Wow. This is some NICE packaging! Cardboard box outside, inside a button and a matchbook (no matches, just post-its, but still...), the Commemorative Beer Mat, and mandatory note book insert, all to help you enjoy these four impressive discs of Garcia's musical styling with Merl Saunders on piano. Who's Merl Saunders? Just one of the finest funk/ jazz keyboard artists of the early 1970s. He began his career writing cigarette commercials, but when they were outlawed he drifted west and began jamming with Jerry Garcia, not realizing who he was. They became close friends, and while they only performed on stage a few times, their mutual influence was profound.

This four-disc collection remasters the session Saunders and Garcia recorded in 1973 at Fantasy Studios, and it's beautifully done. The sound is pure and well balanced; it's free of artifacts or drop outs or loss of the highs that so often plague these archeological revivals. You can feel Saunders' influence in the tracks chosen; they stray from the jug band sound of the Dead to unexpected rock and pop classics such as "I Second that Emotion," "Positively 4th Street," "The Harder They Come," and even "My Funny Valentine." This was one of Garcia's most productive periods, and the coupling with Saunders clearly expanded his already wide horizons.

Saunders' keyboard work is solid, but not intrusive. On almost all of these tracks it's Garcia's flash guitar that dominates. In the back we hear Bill Vitt on drums and John Kahn on bass, and even though they were never in The Dead you still feel they "got" the sound. It's in a slightly different groove, but like any Dead cut it's always coherent, even as it feels as if it's about to fall apart.

Nearly all these tracks are enjoyable; the only weakness is the overly long ramble of "Merl's Tune." It was never released until this collection, and I call that a wise choice on the producer's part. Other than that nit, this is one of the coolest re-issues I've held in a long time, and it's a must for that aging Deadhead in your life.

Fantasy Music: fantasymusic.com