Musicians: Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia

ASIN: B0089X38C2


I’m beginning to think every time Jerry Garcia took to the stage, someone was on hand to record the gig. And it seems each and every one of these recordings were destined for public release multiple times in one form or another. It’s hard not to be grateful, dead or alive, that we were left with such a musical legacy that keeps on giving and growing.

Recorded live by Betty Cantor and Rex Jackson on July 10 and 11, 1973 at the Keystone club in Berkeley, California, the bulk of Keystone Companions was previously released on two vinyl and CD collections. The first double-album set, Live at Keystone came out in 1973 followed by Live at Keystone Volumes 1& 2 in 1988. Now, helping to celebrate what would have been Garcia’s 70th birthday, Fantasy Records has issued a box set that includes everything laid down on those July nights including seven previously unreleased cuts. But that’s not all! In this box, we get a booklet of photos and liner notes as well as a poster, coaster, button, and a “scratchbook” that replicates the design of the original album’s promotional matchbooks. 

Naturally, the trinkets are fun and irresistible for Garcia fans. What about the music they accompany? Well, it’s important to remember this group, while never given an official name, was no pickup band. They’d started jamming in December 1970 at weekly sessions at San Francisco’s Matrix. While keyboardist and composer Merl Saunders and guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Garcia are given top billing, the very tight ensemble had a top-notch rhythm section of John Kahn (bass) and Bill Vitt (drums). (On “Positively 4th Street,” David Grisman sits in playing mandolin.) Perhaps only a drummer would notice, but Vitt uses his splash cymbal better than anyone I’ve heard. Being so well rehearsed, it’s no surprise the quartet could kick back with ease and confidence as they ran through two nights of familiar if often challenging material.

On Keystone Companions, the company’s playing is heard in a very clean mix with perfect balance, separation, and clarity. Disc One shows the range of styles the band could do including the blues of “Hi-Heel Sneakers”, the funk of the Saunders and Kahn instrumental jam “Keepers,” pure laid-back Dead singing  on Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come, and the slow rockabilly of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Disc Two is a bit more spirited, opening with Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion” and continues the pure jazz of “Merl s Tune” where all four members show off their chops. The Byrds’ “It s No Use” is seriously smoking blues and “That s All Right, Mama” is a trip back to those early days when rock was new and fun. By Disc Four, the four are essentially improvising jazz licks showing considerable respect for each other.   

And so on. Some selections on discs 3 and 4 are repeats with different takes on songs played over the two nights. It’s difficult to think of anyone who, if they liked the July 10 renditions, wouldn’t enjoy the variations played on the 11th. It’s impossible to imagine a single Deadhead or Garcia fan who won’t go over the moon for this box. For everyone else, well, the guitar work here alone is worth the price of admission. Add in the three other players, the excellent production, the richness and variety of the material, not to mention all those souvenirs, and it’s hard to beat Keystone Companions for bang for your buck.  

Follow Here To Purchase Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings