His essential solo work
In 1971 the Grateful Dead released their second live album (entitled Grateful Dead but known as Skull and Roses), and it was very well received. By this time the ‘Deadheads’ were already being talked about –these were people who followed the band all over the USA to watch their concerts -, and the record company saw that there was a market for a lot of things related to this band, so they gave them a free hand to release solo albums. The first to get started was band leader Jerry Garcia, who in the summer of 1971 recorded his first solo album, this remarkable Garcia, to be released in January 1972.
It is impossible to separate this album from the two Grateful Dead studio albums that preceded it, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, as it follows the same path of returning to roots and flirting with country and American folk. It is, however, a more experimental album, where Garcia takes a certain licence. Moreover, although several of his songs became part of the Dead's repertoire, it is a true solo album with Garcia playing all instruments, except for the drums, which are handled by his bandmate, Bill Kreutzmann. This sets it apart from the solo albums by Mickey Hart, Rolling Thunder, and, especially, Bob Weir's Ace, which were recorded by the whole band and also appeared in 1972.
Deal opens the album with the same boogie as Truckin', a trotting rhythm over which Garcia shines on guitar, even using slide. Bird Song travels back to the '60s to say goodbye to a fallen comrade, Janis Joplin. It is one of the songs in which, for a brief moment, the country airs of the early 70s mingle with the psychedelic effluvia of the 60s. Then we come to Sugaree, one of the best songs of Garcia’s career, one that was to become one of the most played by the Grateful Dead, and in which his peculiar guitar sound is achieved by passing Garcia's guitar, possibly the '57 Strat given to him by Graham Nash, through a Leslie.
Next comes another of the album's wonders, Loser, with great lyrics by regular collaborator Robert Hunter, about a card player for who, to quote Albert King, "if it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all". This marks the closing of an outstanding first side. The second side opens with the only low moment of the whole album, the collage of songs formed by Late for Supper, Spidergawd and Eep Hour, a progressive mindfuck that ends with Garcia at the piano accompanied by Kreutzmann, with some beautiful touches of Garcia's pedal steel that (almost) save the whole experiment.
Best of all, out of that final jam came the last wonder of the album, the beautiful The Wheel, in which we return to Garcia's mastery of pedal steel. Although the Dead performed it several times live, they never quite caught the magic of the original recording. His control of volume and delay is absolute and what he achieves here shows that when Garcia was on pedal steel it didn't take long for the magic to appear. It's the best song on the second side followed by the angelic To Lay Me Down, another collaboration with Hunter.
This album may have lived up to that masterful Dead duo I wrote about at the beginning if the indulgent experiment that is Late for Supper/Spidergawd/Eep Hour had been swapped for Playing In The Band, One More Saturday Night and Cassidy from Weir's solo album. With that change we'd be talking about the Dead's best album after American Beauty; without it we're talking about the best solo album of Garcia's career.