By: Dennis Cook
The songs of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter are a prickly briar patch – full of berries but watch where you grab. Many think any ol' fool high on cocaine can dig around in their subtly knotted gardens but one swiftly discovers there's way more to them than meets the eye. Northern California's Emory Joseph seems to understand what he's gotten himself into on this collection of smartly assembled interpretations. Played with a '70s style vigor by top flight musicians, Joseph's re-assemblages shake and shiver like vessels possessed, lived in by players with both clear affection for the material and enough spine not to cowed by the originals or The Dead's looming shadow.
Starting with the softball honky blues of "Sugaree," Fennario: Songs By Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter (released August 19 on Iris Records) has the warm rise of a fine Dead show, sequenced to get us bouncing on our heels before knocking us back with hard mortal coil ruminations like "Black Peter," "Loser" and closer "To Lay Me Down." The opener, like it usually did with the boys in concert, is something to shake off nerves and loosen joints before they get crackin' on "Ramble On Rose" and "Tennessee Jed," both infused with ragtime fire and sweet, blue-eyed soul akin to early Boz Scaggs or much of Duane Allman's non-Brothers studio work. At every turn, there's a strong sense of engagement with the material, each participant, clearly steered by Joseph, finding some way to elevate small elements, ultimately creating a fine, cohesive whole. The ensemble consists of Emory Joseph (vocals, acoustic guitar, tap shoes, telephone), Tom “T-Bone” Wolk (electric bass, acoustic guitar, accordion, vocals), Larry Campbell (acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, fiddle, pedal steel, citern, vocals), Duke Levine (acoustic , electric and slide guitars, mandola), Jon Carroll (Hammond B3 organ, grand and Wurlitzer electric
pianos, acoustic guitar, vocals), Dennis McDermott (drums , percussion) and Soozie Tyrell (harmony vocal), plus guests David Grisman (mandolin on "Brown-Eyed Women") and Lincoln Schleifer (electric bass on "Mission in the Rain"). Musician's musicians all, they make one think of Paul Simon's stunning all-star bar band in One Trick Pony, a convocation of ringers gathered together to hang off the backbeat and slink around in some fantastic tunes.
While it's tempting to overcomplicate this project with piled on meaning and lingering ghosts, at heart Fennario is a labor of love spawned by naked affection and a desire to give their own spin to these undeniably timeless songs. They add bittersweet edging to "Brown-Eyed Women," punch-you-in-the-chest ache to "Mission In The Rain" and swing like cats that just saw Little Feat for the first time and got hit in the spirit on "Ramble On Rose" and a pretty lascivious "Loose Lucy." Put simply, they get these songs and fully grok how malleable they are, how welcome they are to being molded anew, and how much bloody fun one can have if they simply accept Hunter & Garcia's cultural inheritance without feeling constrained by history.
Purists may bristle at some of their choices, and Joseph's voice – a pleasing descendent of The Eagles's Bernie Leadon and early Kenny Loggins – is a far cry from Jerry's all-too-human cry. This isn't the Grateful Dead but it isn't trying to be. The one real point of crossover besides the songs themselves is the concise, together vibe of the album, which echoes The Dead's best studio offerings. While mostly celebrated as a live entity, Joseph and company remind us how thoughtful and together the Grateful Dead's studio work could be. Occasionally, the band here betrays their studio musician roots, putting a touch too much gloss on things but such lapses into slickness are fleeting, quickly replaced by wooing harmonies, tintinnabulous strings and an overriding warmth that ultimately makes Fennario a worthy addition to The Dead's voluminous extended family, every bit the equal to anything Phil Lesh & Friends are doing and easily the best Dead related studio offering since RatDog's Evening Moods (2000). Aces, folks, just aces.
Check out the captured in the studio video for "Tennessee Jed"
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