By Katherine Cole
Every once in a while I stumble across an album that takes me totally by surprise. The latest is “Keystone Companions,” a live boxed set from Grateful Dead founding member Jerry Garcia and his longtime friend, keyboard player Merl Saunders. The four discs that make up Keystone Companions were recorded during a two night stand the band played at Berkeley, California’s Keystone Club in July of 1973.
I was never a “Deadhead,” one of those people who followed the Grateful Dead from concert to concert to concert…but I did see them in their prime five or six times. But after listening to “Keystone Companions” last weekend, I really wish I’d had the chance to see this Jerry Garcia side project in person.
Garcia, a guitarist and singer, and pianist Saunders started playing together on a regular basis in 1970. At the start, it wasn’t anything formal, more of a weekly jam session where they guys would gather in a small San Francisco club and just play whatever they felt like. Soon the Saunders-Garcia band outgrew those informal jams and was playing to packed houses in local clubs every weekend when the Dead wasn’t touring.
While he isn’t as much of a “household name” as Garcia, Merl Saunders was quite a musical force. Before teaming up with Jerry, he was a successful session player and bandleader and played with artists including Dinah Washington and Miles Davis. In this undated interview, Garcia talks about learning to play jazz and the classics from his longtime friend.
Keystone Companions is exactly what you’d expect from a Jerry Garcia side project: it’s a mix of rock, blues and jazz, with some bluegrass and soul mixed in. Like any jam session, the songs sometimes stray a bit, not sticking to just one sound. A few even include all those styles of music within the same tune! If you don’t believe me, take a listen to their take on The Temptations classic “I Second That Emotion.” This version is NOT the one on Keystone Companion, but was recorded at a gig the next year.
The archivists did a great job with this the Keystone Companions collection. Many of the tunes had been released on various albums over the years, but this set includes new liner notes, a poster, and a 28-page photo book, along with seven previously unreleased songs.