Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reconstructing Reconstruction, January-February and August-September 1979

Reconstruction, with 'Special Guest' Jerry Garcia, playing at The Old Waldorf in San Francisco on April 23, 1979
Some research into other areas led me to focus on the genesis of the band Reconstruction, a Bay Area jazz-funk ensemble formed by John Kahn that featured Jerry Garcia on lead guitar and vocals. The group only existed in 1979, performing 57 shows with Garcia and a handful without him. As a result, the group is known as an iteration of the Jerry Garcia Band, rather than as a stand-alone ensemble.

In retrospect, this is not entirely unfair, given Garcia's prominence, but a closer look reveals that the group was conceived in a very different manner, where Garcia would have only been an ongoing, if important, guest star for a permanent band. Reconstruction was a fascinating, underrated band, whose music has held up very well to repeated listening over the decades. Nonetheless, for all the extant Garcia scholarship, the roots of the Reconstruction band have hardly been discussed. This post will look at what appears to have been the circumstances surrounding the formation of Reconstruction, with an emphasis on what it was planned to be, rather than what exactly turned out to happen

The Jerry Garcia Band album Cats Under The Stars, released on Arista in April 1978
Cats Under The Stars-Jerry Garcia Band (Arista Records, April 1978)
Somewhere around 1974, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn went from collaborators to partners. Kahn had produced Garcia's first solo album for Round (known now as Compliments Of Garcia), and Kahn's bass playing anchored the live performances of the Jerry Garcia Band. Kahn had had an ongoing career as a producer and session musician in San Francisco and Los Angeles studios, but he had largely put that aside to work with Garcia. The centerpiece for Garcia and Kahn's ambitions was Garcia's first album for Arista Records, Cats Under The Stars, attributed to the Jerry Garcia Band, and released in April 1978. Garcia and Kahn regularly spoke about how much effort they put into that album, and how its poor sales were a true disappointment to both of them. Whatever plans the pair may have had for the future of the Jerry Garcia Band, they must have had to re-think them after Cats was--in industry parlance--a stiff.

Parallel to the Garcia Band album's dismal sales, the onstage contribution of pianist Keith Godchaux had significantly declined. Since Keith and Donna Godchaux were members of both the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band, this had multiple ramifications for Garcia and Kahn. I think that Keith's weaknesses affected the Garcia Band less than the Dead, and in any case I think Garcia's principal musical interest in Keith and Donna was, in fact, Donna Godchaux's vocals. Nonetheless, a change was gonna come, even if it took a while. I have made the argument elsewhere that Garcia had quietly spent 1978 thinking about replacing Keith and Donna in the Dead and the Garcia Band. From observing his opening acts, Garcia seems to have identified Brent Mydland, Ozzie Ahlers and Melvin Seals as future collaborators, and indeed they all played with the Dead and the Garcia Band over the next dozen years.

Meanwhile, what of John Kahn? Kahn had let his record industry career slip away in order to throw in his lot with Garcia. Kahn, like Garcia, had surely hoped that Cats Under The Stars would be like Fly Like An Eagle or Red Octopus, a radio friendly hit album by a band of Fillmore-era veterans, but the reality was quite different. Although in the relatively few interviews that Kahn did over the years he had a wry sense of humor about the dismal sales of Cats, it can't have been casual for him. Garcia had the Grateful Dead as a full-time activity--what did Kahn have, given that he had pushed aside his Hollywood career? According to Kahn, he organized Reconstruction, and it makes perfect sense not only because of the timeline, but because Kahn would have been returning to jazz, the music that made him become a professional bassist in the first place.

October 2-3, 1978: The Shady Grove, San Francisco, CA: Merl Saunders and Friends
Given Jerry Garcia's long friendship with Merl Saunders, the fact that he sat in with Merl for two nights at a tiny club on Haight Street seems perfectly plausible. The tiny Shady Grove was a club that featured bands playing original music, and when it got in financial trouble, not only did Merl play a benefit, he got Jerry to come out too, and it must have packed out the house both nights. However, a closer look makes Garcia's presence rather more curious.

Let me be clear and say that Garcia loved to play, and I don't doubt that on both nights at the Shady Grove, Jerry loved funking out with Merl, just like he had done a few years earlier. Nonetheless, why the Shady Grove, and why October 1978? Garcia had unceremoniously dumped Saunders in 1975, leaving Kahn the unpleasant task of telling his friend that he was no longer working with Garcia. The financial ramifications for Saunders would have been significant, too.

For much of 1974 and '75, Garcia had not only had a regular band with Saunders, he had regularly dropped in on Merl's smaller gigs (much to the delight of Merl, the club owners and the fans), and he had abruptly stopped all that. Saunders worked steadily in the Bay Area for the next twenty-five years, and yet the October '78 shows at the Shady Grove were the only time that Garcia took the opportunity to drop in, an opportunity that must always have been there.

In October 1978, Garcia and Kahn would have known that Keith and Donna Godchaux were leaving both the Dead and the Garcia Band one way or the other. I don't know how explicitly they talked about it, but Garcia and Kahn had to be thinking about their next move. What few remarks Kahn has made about Reconstruction suggest that he wanted to form a jazz group. I think Kahn wanted to form a group with Merl Saunders, and he and Garcia needed some confirmation that Saunders was still a willing and functional partner.

To this day, I do not know who called Garcia about dropping in at the Shady Grove--did Merl regularly invite him to gigs? Did Kahn or someone else act as a middleman? I don't even know who was in Saunders band in October 1978 when Garcia dropped by. Was Kahn with him those nights? In any case, since Garcia showed up for two shows, it wasn't any kind of accident. By 1978, Garcia's musical life was structured enough that there were no free nights by chance. By the time Garcia showed up at the Shady Grove on October 2 and 3, 1978, it was a plan and Garcia was sticking to it.

Without impugning any other motives--Garcia liked to play, Robert Hunter liked the Shady Grove and may have nudged him, and so on--I think Garcia's guest appearance with Saunders was a sort of reverse audition. Merl's musical sympathy with Jerry wasn't in question, but there may have been some unspoken issues about Garcia dismissing him from his circle. It does seem, however, that those unspoken issues remained unspoken, and Garcia implicitly or explicitly must have given Kahn the go-ahead to think about a jazz band.

What Was The Plan? 
Here is what I think the key issues were for Kahn and Garcia
  • Cats Under The Stars' failure meant that the JGB would become primarily a performing ensemble, not a recording one
  • Kahn needed something musically meaningful to do when Garcia was engaged with the Dead
  • Although Keith and Donna Godchaux were short-timers in the Grateful Dead, the exact timing and nature of their departure was unknown, since no one in the Grateful Dead had even talked about it
  • Given the ambiguity of Keith and Donna's status with the Grateful Dead, the least confrontational way to address the Jerry Garcia Band was to shut it down for a while, thus avoiding explaining to Keith or Donna that they were being 'fired' from the JGB and the Dead, since the band itself would be on hiatus
  • Kahn would form a jazz band, and Garcia would play some gigs, bringing attention to the group while ducking any responsibility for explaining anything to Keith and Donna.
  • Meanwhile, Garcia and Kahn would form a new Jerry Garcia Band, working in parallel with the jazz band
  • The Jerry Garcia Band would focus on songs, and the jazz band would leave Garcia free to play some wild music in a more low-key context, similar to what he had done with Merl Saunders in 1975 in some under-the-radar shows 
Blair Jackson quotes John Kahn on the formation of Reconstruction (p.306), dating it to December 1978,and Kahn more or less confirms my outline:
"Reconstruction was going to be a band that would do more jazz, explore that avenue on a deeper level than the old Merl and Jerry thing," Kahn recalled. "It was supposed to be a thing where if Jerry was going to play in the band, which he ended up doing, we could still work when he was out of town with the Grateful Dead, which seemed to be more and more of the time. That was the point. In which case we'd have another guitar player. I actually did it a few times--I did some gigs with Jerry Miller of Moby Grape. He was a really good guy and a great player. I wasn't really planning on Jerry [Garcia] being in the band originally, and then when he was in the band it sort of changed everything from what the plan was."
What Was The Proposed Timeline?
Garcia sat in with Merl Saunders for two nights on October 2 and 3, 1978, effectively confirming that they could work together, even if that was hardly stated out loud, even by Garcia and Kahn. I think Kahn's timeline would have looked like this, even if it wasn't precisely written out
  • Jerry Garcia saw Brent Mydland play with Bob Weir on October 26, 1978, and afterwards said to Weir "this guy might work"
  • The Jerry Garcia Band with Keith and Donna was booked through November 4, 1978
  • The Grateful Dead's Eastern Tour began November 11, 1978 on NBC-TV's Saturday Night Live, anticipating the release of their new album Shakedown Street on November 15, 1978
  •  The Dead's Eastern tour continued throughout November and into early December.
  • The Grateful Dead some December dates in Florida, and then a few late December dates in California, leading up to New Year's Eve at Winterland
  • If it was implicitly assumed that Keith and Donna would be out of both bands after New Year's, then Kahn could get his jazz band together during the Dead's Eastern tour in November and December.
  • If the stars aligned correctly, Garcia and the jazz band might slip in a few shows in December of 1978
  • As the jazz band played around, Garcia and Kahn could get the new Garcia Band together, too
What Really Happened?
Events did not go as planned. They rarely do.
  • Shakedown Street was released, and the Dead went on tour
  • The Grateful Dead performed at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ on November 24, 1978, and the show was broadcast live on a network of FM radio stations
  • After the Passaic show, Garcia's poor health got the better of him and he was checked into a hospital
  • The Grateful Dead were set up at the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, CT on November 25, but Bob Weir and Mickey Hart had to come onstage and announce that Garcia was sick, and that the show would be rescheduled
  • Garcia, amazingly, managed to recover in time for a Florida date on December 12, 1978 (at the Jai Alai Fronton in Miami), and played out the remaining booked Dead dates on the schedule.
  • Sometime before the end of 1978--possibly January 1979--Brent Mydland got a call from Bob Weir, who told him there was a chance he could end up in the Grateful Dead
  • The Grateful Dead ended up playing numerous East Coast dates in January of 1979 to make up the canceled shows. Whether every one of the shows in January and February of 1979 were cancellation makeups isn't clear to me, but in any case the Keith and Donna era lasted a few months longer than the Grateful Dead perhaps intended it to.
  • The final show with Keith and Donna Godchuax was a wonderful show at the Oakland Coliseum Arena on February 17, 1979. At a band meeting in February, Keith and Donna quit the Grateful Dead. While they probably saw the writing on the wall, in any case they couldn't take anymore, saving Jerry or anyone else the stress of saying "it's been a good 7 years--you're fired."
Reconstruction, booked at the Rio Theater in Rodeo for March 11, 1979 (from the SF Chronicle Pink Section). The Goodman Brothers, from Northeast Pennsylvania, opening for Mickey Thomas on March 17, featured Steve Kimock on lead guitar.
Reconstruction Construction
Based on my presumed timeline, and Kahn's comments, when the Jerry Garcia Band stopped playing in November 1978, Kahn must have started talking to Merl about putting a band together. With Garcia's usual desire to avoid conflict while still getting his way, since Kahn was forming a new group, Keith and Donna Godchaux weren't 'fired' from the Jerry Garcia Band. No unpleasant meetings or phone calls were required. Based on Kahn's comments, it seems that Garcia may have been more enthusiastically involved from the very beginning that Kahn or Saunders had expected. This would have been a two-edged sword: on one hand, it would make Reconstruction well known immediately, but on the other hand it would lead fans to expect to see Garcia as a member of the band.

Nonetheless, Reconstruction debuted at the Keystone Berkeley on January 30 and 31, 1979 a Tuesday and a Wednesday night, in between legs of the Grateful Dead tour. These shows were followed some weeks later by Tuesday night shows on February 20 and 27. Reconstruction played a string of shows in the next few weeks, but they avoided playing weekend nights at Keystone Berkeley or other large clubs. The members of Reconstruction were:
Merl Saunders-organ, keyboards, vocals
'Reverend' Ron Stallings-tenor sax, vocals
Ed Neumeister-trombone
John Kahn-electric bass
Gaylord Birch-drums
special guest-Jerry Garcia-guitar, vocals
Ron Stallings had played with Kahn back in his first rock group, The Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band, and he had been in the group Southern Comfort, for whom Kahn co-produced an album. Gaylord Birch, a fine drummer from Oakland who had played with The Pointer Sisters, Santana and many others, was probably brought in by Merl Saunders. According to an interesting interview by Hank Sforzini, Ron Stallings called Ed Neumeister. Apparently, there had been some rehearsals, but another horn player was deemed desirable. Neumeister was an exceptional player. Beside playing in local jazz combos, he was in the house band with the Circle Star Theater as well as the Sacramento Symphony.

Given Garcia's revised schedule, as a result of the canceled shows, I suspect that Reconstruction was supposed to be put together without Garcia, but he made a few more rehearsals than was initially expected. Nonetheless, Neumeister refers to meeting Garcia in rehearsal before the first show, so there definitely were some rehearsals with Garcia. On the first night, January 30, 1979 at Keystone Palo Alto, the only song that Garcia sang with the band was the blues "It's No Use," which would have required little rehearsal, since Kahn and Saunders already knew it well.

Listening to the February 27 tape, the next one we have, seems to suggest that there hadn't been much if any rehearsal with Garcia between January and February. Garcia's playing is very muted for the first verse and chorus of almost every song, but subsequently Garcia steps up and plays with great confidence for the balance of each number. This sounds very much like an experienced player listening to the band's arrangement and then stepping up, a clear hint to me that while he may have jammed some with the band, Garcia hadn't formally rehearsed that much with respect to specific arrangements.

In an interesting interview with Hank Sforzini for Paste magazine,
Neumeister recalls how he became part of the band, “I think they rehearsed once or twice and they decided they would get another horn player, so Stallings recommended me, and actually Ron called me. He said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a gig on Saturday and we’re rehearsing Thursday. It’s just a door gig.’” Neumeister knew who Garcia was but did not follow the Grateful Dead, “I had no idea to be honest the following that Jerry had. I showed up for that first gig and there were wall-to-wall people. It was at Keystone Berkley.”
Although the show was actually on a Tuesday, Neumeister's description suggests about a week of rehearsal, where he came through midway, and that fits Garcia's touring schedule. The previous Dead gig had been January 21, 1979, and the first Reconstruction show was January 30.

Early Reconstruction
After several weekday shows from January through March, the very first weekend show of Reconstruction was Friday, March 9 at the tiny Cabaret Cotati. The first true weekend booking for Reconstruction was not until March 30 and 31 at the Catalyst, the 16th and 17th shows for the group. Clearly the band was intentionally keeping a very low profile. By 1979, the Jerry Garcia Band and its predecessors had been headlining weekend shows at the various Keystones for eight years. The decision to stick to weekday shows was probably predicated on a number of factors
  • The other members of Reconstruction, particularly Ed Neumeister, may have had a variety of conflicts with previously booked weekend shows
  • Since Reconstruction had no intention of doing a "full Garcia Band," they may have wanted to tamp down expectations by staying away from the typical JGB weekend gig
  • Given the complexity of Garcia's schedule, and the fact that Keystone dates were probably booked 30 to 60 days in advance, there may have been a residual concern that Garcia might not make every booked show, so Reconstruction didn't want to commit to a weekend, since they couldn't guarantee the Keystone a profit
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the establishment of Reconstruction, Garcia seems to have made every gig. Other than a tape from the debut on Tuesday, January 30, but we have only occasional setlists. On February 27, Jerry sang "It's No Use" and "The Harder They Come," another song that would have needed little rehearsal. The next list is March 7 (a Wednesday at tiny Rancho Nicasio), and it features "Struggling Man," the first known appearance of a Garcia song that would have actually required at least a run-through. The rarity of different Garcia songs suggests that rehearsals that included Garcia were pretty rare.

Reconstruction was initially intended as a sort of funky jazz project for Kahn and his friends, who of course included Jerry. However, the music was so good that the band started to take itself seriously. Once the band played some weekend shows at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz (March 30-31), they started to play more high profile events, including the group's occasional road trips (to Colorado, for whatever reasons). My own taste may be coloring my opinion here, but I find Reconstruction tapes to be extremely compelling 30+ years later, not true of every Garcia enterprise.

Ironically enough, I think the very power of Reconstruction's music blocked them from much success. Many Deadheads liked jazz, certainly including me, but most us were hardly any kind of experts. By 1979, I had just figured out how to make sense of Miles Davis's mid-60s music (like Miles Smiles) and his fusion efforts (like In A Silent Way), but I hadn't caught up to contemporary jazz itself. Knowing what I know now, a lot of late 70s jazz was following up on the Oakland funk of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, playing very sophisticated music over a funky but ever-changing beat. At the same time, Reconstruction still had a smattering of vocal numbers, shared between Merl Saunders, Ron Stallings and Garcia (with occasional backups from Gaylord Birch).

 In many respects, Reconstruction was very contemporary, but it didn't have an easy slot for the record or concert industry to package it. Reconstruction was too loose and and had too much improvisation to call itself a rock or funk band, but since it didn't sound like early 70s "Fusion Music" (like Return To Forever) it didn't have a commercial slot in jazz either. Jazz always takes a few years to sink into listeners' consciousness, and by the time I grasped how deep Reconstruction was, the band was ten years gone.

Merl Saunders 1979 album Do I Move You, featuring Edd Neumeister on trombone
Reconstructing Studio Traces
Reconstruction never made a studio album. Yet a few traces remain.  One curious legacy was the obscure Merl Saunders album Do I Move You. Released in 1979 on Crystal Clear Records, it was a "Direct To Disc" one take recording, cut straight into the vinyl, an audiophile treat at the time. Five of the six songs were regular parts of Reconstruction sets ("Tellin' My Friends," "Shining Star," "Long Train Running," "Another Star" and "Do I Move You"). Merl's backing group on the album consisted of players with whom he regularly played, including his son Tony on bass, Larry Vann on drums and Martin Fierro on sax. Carl Lockett played guitar. The only member of Reconstruction on the album was Ed Neumeister, who joined the horn section on trombone. Given that the album was cut on February 3, 1979, Neumeister would have just met Saunders. The material on Do I Move You, all sung by Merl, suggests that it was a typical set of the Merl Saunders Band circa 1978, and thus that Reconstruction's material was initially grounded in Merl's arrangements of his working repertoire.

Another curious tidbit were some demos recorded in Spring 1979 by Jerry Garcia, and released as bonus tracks on the All Good Things boxed set (on the Run For The Roses disc). There are three tracks recorded with John Kahn on bass and Johnny D'Foncesca on drums. One of them, "Alabama Getaway," which includes Dan Healy on guitar, was probably just a demo to get the song on tape. Yet why record "Fennario" and "Simple Twist Of Fate?"

There are a variety of possible explanations, the most likely of which was to test out new recording equipment at Club Front. It's important to remember, however, that Garcia wasn't interested in making a studio album at this time, having just had the disappointment of the Cats release. It's also important to remember that there were plenty of live tapes around of both those songs, if a reference tape was needed. However, in the context of Reconstruction, whatever Garcia's motives for the demos, he was working with drummer Johnny D'Foncesca. Johnny D had moved to Mickey Hart's ranch at about age 10, in 1969, and was probably not yet 20 at the time of these recordings. I think Garcia was quietly checking out Johnny D's playing, because Garcia and Kahn were thinking about the next version of the Jerry Garcia Band.

The most significant recording on the boxed set, however, was a version of "Dear Prudence," also recorded in Spring 1979. "Dear Prudence" first turned up in Reconstruction sets around April, 1979, so I assume the recording was from around then. Unlike many other songs, Garcia had never played the song live, so there would have had to have been some discussion and rehearsal to get the parts right. Yet the recording was not just a quick demo of a song. Not only was most of Reconstruction on the recording, with only Gaylord Birch absent (replaced by Johnny D--Birch probably had a session), but Marin veteran Mark Isham was on the recording as well.

In the Sforzini interview Neumeister recalled what must have been these sessions:
Neumeister recalls one specific instance of Garcia’s devotion to his craft during a recording session. Neumeister, who had written the horn arrangements for the session, was discussing the arrangements with Garcia, “He decided for the recording we would extend the horn section—trumpet, some trombones—and we actually double tracked some of it so it was six horns. Jerry sat in the recording studio and not in the booth, so he could hear the track being mixed with the horns. He sat in with the horns, and he was very, very focused and concentrated and extremely detail-oriented. You wouldn’t think this about Jerry sometimes, but he was looking for perfection. We were there until we got it absolutely perfect. He was really into it being really, really clean and tight. Of course that’s what you want but on the other hand you think of Jerry as being this loose improviser.”
I assume that the recording session was at Club Front, but what was Garcia up to? Why bring in an extra horn player, have a pro--Neumeister--write out charts, and then double track the horns, and do multiple takes? This wasn't a casual demo, whatever it was. Something else must have been afoot. An album demo, perhaps? In any case, no one ever asked Garcia or Kahn and they never brought it up.

The End Of Reconstruction
Reconstruction played throughout most of 1979. The final show by the band was September 22, 1979, at the Keystone Berkeley, where they had begun almost nine months before. Just two weeks later, on Sunday, October 7, 1979, the new-model Jerry Garcia Band debuted at Keystone Palo Alto, with Ozzie Ahlers on keyboards and Johnny D'Foncesca on drums. In fact, however, Reconstruction had played a few shows in August and September without Garcia.

Inexplicably, the first known booking without Garcia was at the Keystone Palo Alto on August 4-5. It was inexplicable due to the fact that the Grateful Dead were playing the Oakland Auditorium the same nights, so the potential audience for Reconstruction, even without Jerry, was otherwise engaged. The advertised guitarist was Carl Lockett, a local player who had played on Merl's Do I Move You album (I think Lockett played the August 3 booking at Keystone Berkeley too, but perhaps Jerry played or was supposed to play). JGMF managed to dig up some obscure Reconstruction bookings, although its not certain if the events ever occurred, or how they went down.

Reconstruction: August-September  1979
August 3, 1979: Keystone Berkeley
Garcia could have played this show, but I think Carl Lockett was advertised. On the other hand, maybe this was the show where Merl thought Jerry was booked, but someone unnamed didn't tell him about it (see below).

August 4-5, 1979: Keystone Palo Alto
The Grateful Dead were playing Oakland Auditorium. Carl Lockett was advertised as Reconstruction's guitarist.

August 10, 1979: Temple Beautiful, San Francisco
Garcia played this date, at the former Synagogue which had previously been known as Theater 1839 (where the JGB had played on July 29-30, 1977)

September 3, 1979: Frenchy's, Hayward
The Grateful Dead played Madison Square Garden from September 4-6, so it's unlikely Garcia was in town. This may have been a show with Jerry Miller. Incidentally, Frenchy's was the very same venue from which the Warlocks were hired for a three day booking and then fired, reputedly on June 18, 1965. A Monday night at Frenchy's would be a good place for the band to try out its "new look" without Garcia. The show was subtitled "Merl Saunders And Friends," I think as an indicator of fans as to what to expect.

September 4, 1979: Sleeping Lady Cafe, Fairfax
The Dead were in Madison Square Garden. Whoever played guitar the night before most likely played guitar this night. According to Kahn, the shows with Jerry Miller were quite good, if it was indeed him.

September 15, 1979: Keystone Palo Alto, Palo Alto
Garcia played this show.

September 22, 1979: Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley
Garcia played this show as well, and I think this was the last performance of Reconstruction, with or without Jerry.

A listing from BAM Magazine, September 1, 1979, showing a Keystone Palo Alto date for September 29, 1979, found by JGMF. The ad would have had to have been sent to press before September 1.
September 29, 1979: Keystone Palo Alto, Palo Alto
JGMF found an ad for this show, but its not clear what happened. I don't think Reconstruction would have been booked for a Friday night without Garcia. On the other hand, the Dead were not playing, and Garcia could have played this show. At this point, we have to file this show as likely with Garcia if it happened, but 'unproven.'

However, Jackson quoted a bitter Merl Saunders on the demise of Reconstruction (p.307), when Garcia seemingly abandoned the band:
"..there was a night when he didn't show up for a gig., which was done purposely, I think. It was sabotaged [Saunders won't say by whom]. They didn't tell him there was a gig to get to. And shortly after that he and John started a different group and I sort of lost touch with him."
The September 29 Palo Alto show might fit the timeline for this, but the August 3 Keystone Berkeley show would fit even better. Of course, what does "shortly after" mean? A week, a month? The implication is that the rest of Reconstruction was there, and Garcia was not, so that would exempt Kahn from any subterfuge--but it remains mysterious who Saunders felt was threatened by Garcia's participation in Reconstruction.

October 7, 1979: Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley: Jerry Garcia Band
The Ozzie Ahlers version of the JGB debuted this night, and there isn't any doubt about it.

According to Kahn, on at least one occasion, the guest guitarist was Jerry Miller, a fantastic player who was the once and future lead guitarist for Moby Grape. It was an intriguing idea, really--a far-out jazz funk band with a series of guest guitarists, who sometimes might be Jerry Garcia. Yet for whatever reason, Reconstruction sputtered to a halt without Garcia. I think the music was just too advanced to draw an audience without the natural pull of Garcia, and Reconstruction simply disappeared without a trace. I think there were three shows at the Keystone with Carl Lockett (August 3-5). and two more in September (3-4), possibly with Jerry Miller, and maybe another obscure show or two, but they didn't gain any traction. Garcia and Kahn would have been planning the next iteration of the Jerry Garcia Band, and it looks like Reconstruction just didn't take without Garcia.

Reconstruction was an inspired idea, a plan for a working jazz band with Garcia as a regular but not permanent guest, and a chance for Garcia to get some serious playing done. Garcia had sort of managed to pull that off with Merl Saunders in late '74/early '75, and this seemed like another chance. The music lived up to its name, the players were great and the inspiration was there, yet it never went any further. No one asked Garcia or Kahn about it, or Merl Saunders for that matter, so we'll never know exactly what was planned and whether the group's arc was satisfactory or not. We are left only with some fine tapes, a single studio track and a whiff of what might have been.

13 comments:

  1. "No one asked Garcia or Kahn about it, or Merl Saunders for that matter..."

    It's hard to believe that nobody asked at the time, but maybe the music was ahead of its time. Has anyone ever asked Merl's son about it? Also, who was Jerry's manager at that time? Merl's quote says, "They didn't tell him there was a gig" so who was "they"? Apparently there was some mistrust and/or jealousy between Merl and the Grateful Dead family, so figuring out who "they" are would be interesting for me to read about. I was at a Merl show once where he told the story about Jerry's coma and he said that nobody would tell him where Jerry was, and after he found him Jerry would get moved...so taking that at face value it seems that the tensions were longstanding and the actors stayed in the shadows. That's too bad, because Jerry's stuff with Merl is some of my favorite music in the world.

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  2. Not only have the roots of Reconstruction barely been discussed, its demise is even more mysterious...
    Saunders was deeply suspicious of the Dead, feeling they were threatened by him & did whatever they could to keep Garcia away from him. It seems paranoid, but Melvin Seals felt exactly the same way (see the comments for the Jerry '78 post a couple months ago - Seals said the Dead tried to get Garcia to drop the JGB).
    So there was definitely some behind-the-shadows maneuvering going on in Garcia's sidebands, and we can't recover all of it.

    This post speculates on the initial plans behind Reconstruction - while we can't know for sure, it seems that over time they backfired. If Kahn & Garcia thought they'd play in Reconstruction and a new JGB simultaneously, that thought was abandoned; and if Saunders thought his new jazz-band could have a go without Garcia, he soon found differently.
    However Saunders felt about it, the fortunes of his band depended on the guitar player - a part-time sideman! - and one who'd dropped him just 4 years earlier. Once Garcia stepped out again, Reconstruction folded, regardless of what other guitar player stepped in.

    From Saunders' hints, it sounds like Garcia was as uncommunicative as ever about his plans - he just stopped showing up regularly, and he & Kahn put together a new band under Saunders' nose, as it were!
    But I have to think there must have been some discussion in September, between Kahn & Saunders anyway, about what was going on. The synchronicity between the end of Reconstruction & the revival of the JGB seems too close not to have been worked out ahead of time. (As you note, Keystone shows were likely booked weeks ahead of time, and Garcia didn't just whip up the new JGB in the first week of October. So I suspect everyone in the band knew that was coming.)
    I wonder if Garcia felt restless in Reconstruction, playing Merl's tunes. Much as he always said he liked being a sideman, he seems to have had the itch to lead his own band & make his own musical choices. (Perhaps there were financial considerations too, though I think those were usually secondary for Garcia.)
    I think the horn players for Reconstruction could probably fill us in on what happened, if anyone were to ask them.

    On another note, Reconstruction was indeed one of Garcia's finest bands. The funky, groove-oriented horn sound is unique in his output. In comparison, they make Dead experiments like the Sep '73 horns or the "Disco Dancing" sound utterly lame. So it is a shame it ended so quickly, before they even reached their full potential.

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  3. What are the details on Garcia's "unceremonious" dumping of Saunders in 1975? I don't think I've ever heard that story.

    Also, I seem to recall reading a quote from Saunders (I forget the context) to the effect of "I don't work with junkies", which, I always assumed, had something to do with why he stopped working with Jerry in the late 70s.

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    1. Blair Jackson wrote in his bio that "when he returned from the Keith & Donna tour [in Sep '75], Garcia abruptly kicked Merl Saunders & Martin Fierro out of the band."

      According to John Kahn, the band "didn't seem to be headed anywhere for us. It was stuck in a bag. Without putting anybody down, it was just a period of non-growth musically, I thought, and Jerry thought so too. We dealt with it like Jerry dealt with a lot of things - we just sort of ditched it. We hid and just didn't have any gigs for a long time, and then we started another band. It wasn't very well done... Jerry was supposed to do that one himself, because I'd been the guy that fired Kreutzmann to get Tutt. So it was his turn, but of course he wouldn't do it."

      Martin Fierro: "Merl and I got dropped without as much as a fanfare or a warning. I went to Steve Parish and said, 'Hey man, when's our next gig?' ...And he's like, 'Didn't you hear? You got fired a month ago.' 'What?' 'Legion of Mary doesn't exist anymore.' I was so sad and disillusioned and it took me a few years to get over it... I didn't see [Jerry again] for maybe 15 years..."

      And what Saunders told Jackson:
      'Though Merl admits it hurt "to get thrown out of the group I started," he doesn't believe Garcia was the instigator of the change. "I think it was professional jealousy. And it had nothing to do with Jerry. It was the power that Jerry and I had together. It was a big force. And some people were threatened by it. Sometimes things happened and Jerry didn't even know about them. Sometimes something would happen and he'd know about it and just turn his head. In this case, I don't think he initiated it, but he let it happen." Merl declines to comment further, intimating that all will be revealed when he writes his own book.'

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  4. Garcia made a comment once that reflects on one of the points in this blog - he was asked in a 1976 interview why Kingfish & the JGB didn't play together:
    "Neither one of us wants to cash in on the Grateful Dead notoriety. And also, the people that are in our respective bands have identities of their own to support. So rather than get everybody under the big Grateful Dead umbrella, it's better if everybody can have their own little shot. Because, for example, it would be possible for Kingfish to go out and work without Weir. They're a band without him as well as a band with him. There are those kinds of considerations, because when we start working with the Grateful Dead...those bands will have their own survival problems. Not so much my band, because Ron works with Elvis, John does studio stuff, and he's always got stuff going on."

    Which supports the way Kahn saw Reconstruction - "It was supposed to be a thing where if Jerry was going to play in the band, which he ended up doing, we could still work when he was out of town with the Grateful Dead."

    This post speculated that Reconstruction came to an end because the band flopped without Garcia. But I wonder if it wasn't Kahn's decision - it seems that in those last couple months, they played an even number of shows with & without Garcia (and we don't know how well they did, audience-wise), so it wasn't as if Garcia jumped ship & the band floundered for a month or two.
    The schedule, in fact, seems very much planned - both in the way shows were booked on Grateful Dead dates, and the way bookings stop dead just before the new JGB was to start.
    Reconstruction was Kahn's project - he'd put the band together, and as he rehearsed a new JGB with Garcia, he may have had his own reasons for ending Reconstruction.

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  5. Amazing post & follow up about a terrific & much underrated band.....Mahalo nui loa........

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  6. jerry miller is an incredible guitar player, so the shows with him would have been really great to hear. The thing about Miller in contrast to Garcia was that while Garcia was getting into learning banjo and folk music in the early sixties, Miller was cutting his teeth in jazz organ trios. So years later he would have been a natural to play with Merl and horns, they may even have been able to play more complex tunes than with Garcia.

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  7. Markus, I'm with you. If I have a wish list, Jerry Miller plus Reconstruction would be pretty high on it. The thing that Miller brings is an ability to swing, no doubt from those organ trios, as you say.

    I assume the Miller>Kahn connection was through an organ player named Charles Schoning (aka Chuck Steaks). Schoning was in the Frantics with Miller when they moved from Tacoma to the Bay Area in 1965. Subsequently, he was Kahn's roommate and jamming partner, so that must be how Kahn and Miller knew each other.

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  8. Great post, thanks! I photographed the April 23, 1979 show and have some shots up at Flickr:

    http://bit.ly/VaoK42

    I have lots more I can post if anyone's interested...

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    1. I'd love to see more! The ones of Jerry look like you took them today. Were you working the shows as a professional photographer or were you just a fan who took some great pictures?

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    2. Thanks! Nope, just an 18 year-old deadhead with a canon F1 that I brought to many shows. I'd sell prints at subsequent shows and and that would pay for the evening :-)

      If you would like to see the entire rolls, make me a contact on Flickr and I'll give you access. A lot of the shots are definitely not ready for the public , but I think they look kinda cool as an historical record at least. If you like any in particular, let me know, and I can clean them up and post them in the public set.

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  9. Chris, the pictures of Jerry with the Wolf at the Old Waldorf look great. I, for one, am very interested in more "lost" photos, if you can post and link to them.

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