Friday, May 13, 2011

"So What" The Jerry Garcia Band: Keystone Palo Alto, Palo Alto, CA November 3, 1978

The last performance of the Keith and Donna iteration of the Jerry Garcia Band was at the Keystone Palo Alto on either November 3 or 4, 1978. The Jerry Site shows the November 4 date as questionable (the source was Dennis McNally's list, and he too had a question mark), so the last confirmed date for the Garcia Band with Keith and Donna was Saturday, November 3. We already know that Jerry Garcia had heard Brent Mydland play with Bob Weir the week before, and Garcia and Weir were contemplating replacing Keith and Donna with Brent in the Grateful Dead. The Dead had been unhappy with Keith and Donna for some time, particularly Keith's playing, but in typical Dead fashion the band never discussed it. According to fuzzy rumor, Garcia became unhappy with Keith in the Garcia Band at the end of 1978 over some non-musical issue, and did not schedule any more performances. Perhaps Garcia was figuring that with Brent on the horizon, the end was near anyway.

Over the years, I have not been a huge fan of the late '78 Garcia Band tapes, and thus had not paid too much attention to them. When I was researching the final days of Keith and Donna with the Dead, however, I had to focus on their last date with the JGB, and looked more closely at the November 3, 1978 show. I had dimly known that the band performed Miles Davis's classic "So What," but I had vaguely assumed that this was just a fin de siecle quote, like "Teddy Bear's Picnic" or the like. I did look at the setlist, however, and was astonished to see that "So What" was over 17 minutes long. A reliable Commenter said that the Nov 3 "So What" was supposedly one of Garcia's favorite JGB performances, making the demise of that lineup even stranger. It was worth my time, then, to at least check it out.

Although I do not normally make blanket statements about tapes, I have to say that the Keystone Palo Alto "So What" from November 3, 1978, is my single favorite performance by the Keith and Donna version of the Jerry Garcia Band. Granted, I have an unnatural favoritism for Miles Davis, and it's always exotic to hear seemingly "one time" performances, but despite being very late for the train, I could not believe that during what was probably the last performance of that lineup there was a fantastic, extended performance of a difficult song completely outside of the regular performing repertoire of the Jerry Garcia Band. The Garcia/Saunders group and The Legion Of Mary had a jazz component to them, best expressed in some great 1974 versions of Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance." The Keith And Donna variant, however, played no jazz tunes and no instrumentals (to my knowledge), and yet here they were at their tail end, with a vibrant version of a jazz classic that suggested an entirely different band.

The "Other" Jerry Garcia Band 1976-78
The Golden Road/Winter 1987

In John Kahn's first major interview, with Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon of The Golden Road (Winter 1987 issue), Kahn described a number of remarkable things about the history of his partnership with Jerry Garcia that have often been forgotten. In one remarkable sequence, Kahn described how the band rehearsed (clipped above):
Keith used to live over on Paradise Drive [in the Marin town of Corte Madera], so we used to play over there all the time. He had a room set up so we could just go in and play. Tutt was out of town a lot, but that was OK. You could practice without a drummer. Plus, Tutt was so good that there was nothing that we could come up with that he couldn't figure out right away. I lived in Mill Valley, and Jerry lived in Stinson Beach, so it was real easy for us to get together. Anyway, we had this scene where we would get together just about every night and play. We'd do just about everything. We had Dylan songbooks and we'd do stuff like play everything from Blonde On Blonde. Then we'd do all sorts of Beatles songs. It was great. Most of it never got past that room.
Ok. Just to recap so far: The Jerry Garcia Band got together almost every night in the 1976-77 period, when they were in town, often without a drummer, and played songs out of songbooks. I wonder how "Memphis Blues Again" sounded? Did they ever even think about recording any of this? Why, as it happens, yes. Kahn:
We had this trip where we'd call ourselves the Front Street Sheiks and we'd play dumb piano jazz and stuff like that. We did some recording down at the rehearsal place [what evolved into the Dead's studio] right after they got their 24-track. We'd be down there every night of the week playing these old songs like "All The Things You Are," and "Night In Tunisia, " things like that. Keith and Donna were always together, so Donna sang with us too.
So, at some point, 24-track tapes existed of most of the Jerry Garcia Band playing jazz standards and goodness knows what else, just having fun to see if the new equipment worked. The Garcia Band rehearsed in what became Le Club Front in mid-1977, so it sounds like they had moved from the Godchauxs Corte Madera home over to San Rafael. Did any of these tapes survive? Has anyone even heard a rumor of this material, even under another name?

I think the Jerry Garcia Band had played "So What" many times, if often without Ron Tutt. The relaxed confidence with which they move through the changes isn't just luck. Whether consciously or not, the JGB knew that Keystone Palo Alto was the end of the line, and for 17 minutes it was just one final time for the boys in the living room, swinging a Miles Davis tune like champs, because it was fun. A nice way to go out. Here's to hoping that some fragments of this alternative universe Garcia Band have survived into the 21st century.


  1. There is a listing for JGB at Keystone Palo Alto on 11/4/78 in BAM no. 43 (November 3, 1978), p. 10.

  2. In one part of that Kahn quote, he says, "we'd do all sorts of Beatles songs... Most of it never got past that room."

    The Beatle part of that is what strikes me - only I Want To Tell You made it into the Garcia Band's shows in 1976. However, Hopkins, Kahn & Garcia did a surprising instrumental version of Mother Nature's Son in the 12/31/75 show, which is more than just noodling - these Beatle-song rehearsals apparently preceded Keith joining the band.

  3. For sites integration, I thought I'd throw a backlink to my query about 11/4/78: JGBP has just posted a comment to the effect that he doubts 11/4/78 happened.

  4. This So What is storming! Probably the best Keith I ever heard, seems right in his wheelhouse.

    1. Thanks, corry and others for cluing me in to recordings of this and other JGB shows -- I was (amateurishly) up on a lot of the Dead tapes but not at all on these! Wonderful stuff!

  5. I hadn't heard this. I encountered all of it while I read your excellent piece. All at once. It was a powerful aesthetic experience, and a nice article.

  6. It doesn't shed any light on the 11/4 question, but the Datebook ad from 10/29 bills 11/3 and 4 as the last appearances of the year. So the decision had been made to wrap it up by at the latest whatever time they called copy into Freddie in time for the ad.

    1. A lot of history embedded in this Comment. The deadline for the Oct 29 '78 Datebook would have been Tuesday, Oct 24--before Garcia had heard Brent play with Weir. Granted, the Dead had booked a Nov/Dec tour that was later canceled. But why include a caveat "last appearance of the year?"

      As you assert, that "last appearance" insert could only indicate that the decision had been made to move on. It explains why Garcia was listening so closely to Brent when he saw him play. Kahn probably already had the plan for Reconstruction in place, and of course Jerry had already sat in with Merle.

      So by finding this, we can move from speculation to high confidence that Keystone Palo Alto was the Last Waltz.

  7. Actually, though, the Bob Weir Band had been playing the Bay Area clubs in mid October. So JG might have heard Brent before.