It is only fitting that in the year of the Grateful Dead's Fare Thee Well 50th Anniversary shows that its iconic guitarist finally gets the recognition he deserves. This triple-disc package is the first in a series of archival releases to document the Jerry Garcia Band's 13-night run on Broadway. The discs are divided into two acoustic sets -- one from an afternoon matinee performance and the second from the first half of an evening show -- and an electric final act. The band on the first two includes bassist John Kahn and drummer David Kemper (who also play in the electric version), guitarist David Nelson (New Riders of the Purple Sage), fiddler Kenny Kosek, and Sandy Rothman on banjo, dobro, and mandolin. The latter two also provide backing vocals. Highlights in the matinee set include "Deep Ellum Blues," Ralph Stanley's "If I Lose," and George Jones' "Ragged But Right." The second set is a bit more spirited with loose but excellent versions of "I've Been All Around This World," Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 9," and the traditional Appalachian standard "I'm Troubled," as well as Tex Logan's "Diamond Joe" (with Nelson on lead vocals) and Mel Tillis' and Webb Pierce's classic honky tonk blues "I Ain't Ever."
The final electric set drops the string players and takes a turn toward groove: Melvin Seals plays organ, and Gloria Jones (Marc Bolan's widow) and Jackie LaBranch offer backing vocals. This is where things catch fire. It includes three fine versions of Bob Dylan tunes -- "Forever Young," a ten-minute "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and a sprightly "Tangled Up in Blue." Soul and reggae are represented by Holland-Dozier-Holland's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" and Peter Tosh's "Stop That Train," and there's a raw, early rock & roll take on Los Lobos' "Evangeline." Listeners also get fine versions of two originals in "Run for the Roses" and "Gomorrah." This isn't the best Garcia performance, but it's far from substandard. Since fans have heard most, if not all of these songs, many times before, On Broadway: Act One is more for the completist than the devoted fan. There are some truly inspired moments of guitar interplay between the leader and Nelson on the first two discs, and Seals adds another layer of swing and R&B drive to the electric one. Even with the uncertainties of a first-night performance, these musicians are itching to play together; and, as the tape traders know too well, by the end of this two-week run this group would be rattling the rafter. For veteran fans, it's fascinating to hear their more tentative beginnings here. ~ Thom Jurek