Even 20 years after his death, Jerry Garcia is making his impact felt around the music world, thanks in large part to his sidekick Melvin Seals, who will perform with JGB on March 12 at the Putnam Den.
When news broke on August 9, 1995, that enigmatic leader of the nomadic Grateful Dead, a rock and roll band with bluegrass, country, blues, jazz and psychedelic elements, had passed away, tens of thousands of Deaheads gathered in impromptu memorials across the country as a cathartic final salute to their musical leader
Now, two decades later, Garcia – Captain Trips, if you will – is physically gone, but it’s hard to argue that his spirit has ever been brighter. An integral part of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s and a center figure in Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, Garcia and his mates in the Dead embraced the cliché notion that ‘it’s all about the music.’
The story about the Dead has been written countless times. Within the confines of such a cast of accomplished musicians, it seemed Garcia began feeling trapped toward the end of the band’s 30-year career, often times going through the motions and appearing uninterested. Some blame that on his heroin addiction; others on the grueling nature of the life of a touring musician.
Whatever the case, one thing appears for sure: Garcia felt the most comfortable within his side group, the Jerry Garcia Band, which played everything from original Garcia compositions, to gospel favorites, to Bob Dylan songs and just about everything in between. If you don’t believe me about his passion, go to YouTube and watch one of the many full JGB concerts. Garcia is smiling, dancing his crazy fingers up and down the fretboard, appearing as comfortable as he can be for a man with an admitted fear of the stage.
Carrying on that spirit and ideology is Seals, the 62-year-old organist who fronts Melvin Seals and JGB. Seals was Garcia’s keyboardist from 1980 up until 1995, adding a huge layer of soul and personality to compliment Garcia’s candid, soft voice and ferociously delicate guitar playing.
Seals and his band will be performing at the Putnam Den on March 12, featuring his trademark Hammond B-3 organ and the Garcia Band catalog. He took time on March 3, the opening day of his tour, to speak with the paper about a variety of topics, including an anecdote about Garcia’s nature.
“"You heard that saying, 'He'll give you the shirt off his back'? Well that's really how Jerry was,” Seals explained. “One Christmas -- Jerry liked to have us over for the holidays to sing carols and be merry -- Phil, other JGB members were there, Jerry had this oversize designer chair. I sat in it all night, and Jerry came up and said, 'man, you look great in that chair!' Two days later, without my knowledge or anything, Jerry had it arranged to be delivered to my house. That's the type of stuff that defined Jerry, the man, off stage. He had the biggest heart."
When Garcia passed away, Deadheads young and old were left with a massive void. The people who made following Jerry and Co. a lifestyle suddenly had nothing. It would be a few years until the remaining members of the Dead would regroup under various monikers including The Other Ones and The Dead, always careful not to use the word ‘Grateful.’ Bassist Phil Lesh is on record saying the band agreed that they couldn’t use the original name since the centerpiece was no longer around.
The Jerry Garcia Band was a huge draw, as well. Deadheads would travel to the middle of nowhere just to listen to Garcia play one song on an out-of-tune guitar. That’s the passion and dedication that brewed inside everyone who was deeply touched by the power of Garcia’s music.
Seals reformed the band in 2004, after a few years of failed attempts.
“After Jerry died, we came out of the gate at large venues, and it backfired a little,” he said. “I’m not sure we had the right group of musicians. For this band, it’s all about the vibe. If the vibe ain’t right, it won’t work.”
Much has progressed since then.
“I liken it to going to church,” he added. “We try to go back in time at our concerts. That’s really all I can offer. When you come see us, I want you to let go of your job, whatever is going on in your life, and enjoy the show, relive a little of the magic from all those years ago. If you never saw Jerry, you can experience some of it with us. I just want everyone to smile and dance and have a great time. It’s exactly what Jerry wanted.”
There are countless tribute bands out there carrying the torch Garcia, Lesh, Bob Weir, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann lit in 1965, when the band changed its name from the Warlocks. Dark Star Orchestra, which recreates Dead shows in their entirety, immediately comes to mind. Each of the living members of the Dead – the Core Four – has his own band, and routinely performs concerts. Over the July 4 holiday weekend, the Core Four are performing three concerts at Soldier Field in in Chicago in honor of the Dead’s 50th anniversary. Filling in the mighty huge shoes of Garcia, is none other than Phish guitarist and jam band scene leader Trey Anastasio. All 210,000 tickets for the event sold out within minutes of the public onsale.
There’s been a lot of chatter about the concerts. Since the early 90s, there has been a notable disconnect between Deadheads and those who follow Phish. A lot of Deadheads feel Phish undeservedly became the scene’s torchbearers when Garcia passed. Others, especially young Deadheads who weren’t able to experience Garcia in a live setting, go to extreme lengths to experience a Dead show. Legendary promoter Bill Graham once said: “The Dead aren’t the best at what they do. They’re the only ones that do what they do.”
Seals said it would have been nice if more of the Grateful Dead Family were invited to perform that weekend. Left out were vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux and fill-in keyboardist Tom Constanten. And while Seals never performed with the Dead – he only saw them live twice, at Garcia’s prodding – he said it would have welcomed an invite.
“Everyone will be there in one way or another,” Seals said. “Would it have been nice to have been invited? Yes. But I certainly am not upset. Those guys did something special for a long time. I am very happy for them, and I am not bothered by it at all. I hope it goes well for them.”
Of the ethos passed along from Garcia to Seals, rotating the setlist every night was on top of that list. Seals said that because so many fans will tour with the band – attend multiple, and sometimes every show of the tour – he doesn’t play the same show twice.
Seals, who played in church bands in the years prior to being recruited by Garcia, recalls the first time he saw Garcia and his band play. Needless to say, Seals’ first impression was that the band was sloppy in the composed parts of songs, but was blown away by the improvisation.
“Jerry told me when I joined, ‘it’s not about crossing your Ts and dotting your Is’ in the band,” Seals said. “It’s all about the jamming and what’s happening in the moment. Outside of the song structure, we did whatever we wanted to do. Nothing was ever the same, except that we might be playing a song we did a few nights prior. I have thought a lot about tightening it up, but that’s not what the fans want. Our fans love the spontaneity, and I’m here for them.”
While the members of the Dead have stated that the Chicago shows are most likely the last time they will all play together, Seals said he has not put a time on how long he will continue to perform.
“In our line of work, most of us die on the road,” he said. “We don’t pick when we’re going to hang it up. For me, it’s all I know how do to, to be a musician and perform. The money now is nowhere near like it was when Jerry was with us, but that’s okay. I love doing what I do, and I want to keep doing it.”
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It sounds like Seals is sticking to Garcia’s mission statement.