Days Between: Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band

Revisit the short run of the acoustic Jerry Garcia Band lineup.

By Andy Kahn Aug 8, 2022 1:03 pm PDT

Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was born on August 1, 1942 and died on August 9, 1995 at the age of 53. Each year, the “Days Between” Garcia’s birthday and the anniversary of his death mark a period of time to reflect on and celebrate the beloved musician’s life and career. This year, JamBase honors the Days Between by examining the evolution of the Jerry Garcia Band from inception in 1975 through a final performance in 1995.

Among the many iterations of the Jerry Garcia Band was a lineup of musicians that was billed as the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band. Lasting from early 1987 through mid-1988, the group saw Jerry Garcia going back to his acoustic guitar beginnings to present a repertoire of songs rooted in folk and bluegrass traditions.

Joining Garcia was his consistent JGB cohort, bassist John Kahn. The acoustic lineup also saw Garcia reconnecting with guitarist David Nelson and multi-instrumentalist Sandy Rothman.

Nelson, Rothman and Garcia’s musical friendships pre-dated the founding of the Grateful Dead in 1965. Nelson and Garcia played together as a duo in the early 1960s and were later bandmates in the New Riders Of The Purple Sage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For a short stint between 1963 and 1964, Nelson, Garcia and Rothman were also bandmates in the bluegrass outfit called Black Mountain Boys.

Black Mountain Boys – “Rosa Lee McFall”

In 1973, Garcia’s interest in acoustic music focused on playing bluegrass on the banjo with the all-star outfit Old & In The Way which was made up of bassist John Kahn, guitarist Peter Rowan, fiddler Vasser Clements and mandolinist David Grisman. For a few months in 1974, Garcia and Rothman participated in the Great American String Band. According to JerryGarcia.com:

Together for only a handful of shows between April 20th and June 13th, 1974, Great American String Band was an eclectic acoustic group whose members included variations of Jerry on banjo and guitar, David Grisman, Richard Greene, Taj Mahal on bass and vocals, Sandy Rothman on guitar and vocals, guitarist/singer David Nichtern, and bassist Buell Neidlinger. Although the band consisted of three Old and in the Way members, bluegrass was not a strong influence on their sound. They were more of a blues/swing jazz ensemble. One of the last gigs they played together was opening for the Grateful Dead at UC Santa Barbara.

Great American String Band – April 27, 1974

After only eight shows, the Great American String Band dissolved, and in 1975 Garcia formed the first lineup of the fully electric Jerry Garcia Band (with Kahn, drummer Ron Tutt and keyboardist Nicky Hopkins).

Between 1982 and 1986, Garcia and Kahn played over 65 concerts as a duo. Those shows saw Garcia playing acoustic guitar and Kahn on upright bass. It was also in 1986 that Garcia fell into a life-threatening diabetic coma. Garcia’s longtime musical collaborator, keyboardist Merl Saunders, spent part of the year working with Garica, who had to almost completely relearn to play his instrument.

During Garcia’s period of recovery, he was visited by Nelson and Rothman, who relayed this story to jambands.com in a November 2010 interview:

David Nelson: By November [1986], Jerry was getting out and doing stuff again. When it came time for the annual Grateful Dead Thanksgiving party, it was decided to have it at the Log Cabin in San Anselmo, California. It’s an American Legion hall kind of place, but really nice – designed like a log cabin. And the three of us were the “Log Cabin Boys” for the night.

Sandy Rothman: We were all just sitting around a table with all the other families and people milling around in typical party fashion. Everybody was doing what they were doing and occasionally listening to us. I guess we were providing ambient music in the room, but it wasn’t like a performance – just a lot of fun.

David Nelson: Before the party, Sandy and I were saying to each other, “Jeez – Jerry’s just been to the ends of the universe and back; what’s he going to remember about those old tunes?” So the two of us tried to put our heads together: “Let’s try that song,” and, “I think I remember how that one goes.” By the end of the evening, we realized that Jerry remembered more of the words than we did! But that was the way Jerry always was: listen once; play it.

Sandy Rothman: Jerry was on the banjo at the Thanksgiving party, as well. I’m not sure where we were when the decision was made for him to play guitar instead of banjo. It had to have been at some get-together before the Poster Art Benefit we played at the Fillmore, though.

The benefit Rothman referenced was an event supporting Artist Rights Today (A.R.T., Inc.), an organization that helped concert poster artists of the 1960s and 1970s get compensated for their work. Accompanying Garica on March 18, 1987, at The Fillmore in San Francisco were Kahn, Nelson, and Rothman. Also on the bill that night was one-time JGB member, vocalist Maria Muldaur, as well as Saunders and others.

March 18, 1987 – Ripple – Rosa Lee McFall

Describing the performance to jambands.com, Nelson and Rothman recalled:

David Nelson: Garcia calls a couple weeks or so after Thanksgiving and says, “Listen: I’m already booked at this benefit gig for the poster artists of the 1960s at the Fillmore in March – why don’t you and Sandy play, too? John Kahn’s going to be on bass; let’s do it with the four of us.”

Sandy Rothman: That was our first actual public performance as the “Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band,” a default name because we couldn’t think of anything else. The idea of what we wanted to do was to not be as bluegrass-sounding. We wanted to play a little more of an old-time mountain style that didn’t include as much banjo. Whenever we did add some banjo, I played it – Jerry asked me to, and he stayed on guitar.

David Nelson: We went to Garcia’s house the day before the gig to rehearse. Jerry says, “We’re only going to do like, three songs, okay?” And then it was, “Well, what should we do?” We tried 5 or 6 songs altogether and figured that any of those felt pretty good. We go to the Fillmore the next night and we play our three songs. Now, keep in mind that this is the first time the three of us had been on stage in public together since 1964 – but it seems to go pretty well. Plus, we had John Kahn on bass, which was totally great.

Afterwards, we head back to our dressing room saying, “I wonder how that went over?” “Do you think they got what we were trying to do?” We’d no sooner sat down in the dressing room than Bill Graham bursts in through the door – just explodes into the room. We were like, “Hey, Bill! Fancy meeting you here!” And Bill says, “I’ve got to do this!” – talking real dramatically, you know? “I’ve got to do something with this. I love it – it traces the roots of the music from the original Grateful Dead songs all the way back to …” And he’s going on and on, pacing around the room and waving his arms and we’re just sitting there nodding at him: “That’s right, Bill – that’s right.”

And of course, Garcia has this totally humorous take on it, laid back on the couch, smiling and gesturing with his hands, “Go on, go on …” And we’re still nodding, “That’s right, Bill – that’s right.” It was so funny and Sandy and I had all we could do to keep from splitting our sides laughing. Bill ends his little speech with, “I’ve got to take this somewhere, but I don’t know where to book it …”

He pauses and Jerry jumps right in: “Take it to Broadway, Bill!” And Bill goes, “Broadway!” He backs out of the room, nodding his head and pointing at us, going, “Broadway …” We just went, “Holy shit.” But the next thing we know, there are 18 shows sold out at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway. Amazing.

Nelson was describing the 18-show residency the Jerry Garcia Band and Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band staged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway in New York City. Those shows presented an opening acoustic set by the JGAB, followed by an electric set performed by the classic JGB lineup. Drummer David Kemper played snare drum during the opening acoustic sets and was behind the kit for the electric sets. Fiddler Kenny Kosek participated in a few of the Lunt-Fontanne shows, and later ones as well.

The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s repertoire consisted of traditional songs like “Deep Elem Blues,” “I’m Troubled,” “I’ve Been All Around This World,” George Jones’ arrangement of “Ragged But Right,” Mississippi John Hurt’s arrangement of “Ballad Of Casey Jones,” Tex Logan’s arrangement of “Diamond Joe,” and others. They also covered Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standing On The Corner)” and Elizabeth Cotten’s “It Ain’t No Lie” (read more on Garcia’s connection to Cotten here.) The band’s setlists sometimes included “Ripple,” which Garcia wrote with lyricist Robert Hunter for the Grateful Dead.

Multi-night JGAB runs in San Francisco in November and in Los Angeles in December followed the Broadway stint. In 1988, Garcia appeared with his acoustic outfit just four additional times, with a final Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band performance coming on July 9, 1988.

In 1988, Grateful Dead Records released a Jerry Garica Band live album, Almost Acoustic that was culled from the San Francisco and Los Angeles concerts. A second live album, 2010’s Ragged But Right, was largely pulled from the Lunt-Fontanne shows, with additional tracks from San Francisco and L.A.

Two installments of the Pure Jerry archival release series featured the Jerry Garcia Band’s Broadway run. Another archival release, On Broadway: Act One – October 28th, 1987, was also pulled from the Lunt-Fontanne tapes. Stream a playlist of live JGB recordings below:

  • Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band - 1st Lineup

    Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band - 1st Lineup 

  • Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band - Godchaux Era

    Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band - Godchaux Era 

  • Days Between: Jerry Garcia Performing With Reconstruction

    Days Between: Jerry Garcia Performing With Reconstruction 

  • Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band – Seals, Kemper, LaBranch & Jones Era

    Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band – Seals, Kemper, LaBranch & Jones Era 

  • Days Between: Watch Classic Jerry Garcia Band Lineup Perform In 1990

    Days Between: Watch Classic Jerry Garcia Band Lineup Perform In 1990 

  • Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band Long Jams Spotify Playlist

    Days Between: Jerry Garcia Band Long Jams Spotify Playlist 

  • Days Between: Watch 7 Different Jerry Garcia Band Lineups Performing Live

    Days Between: Watch 7 Different Jerry Garcia Band Lineups Performing Live 


[Many thanks to JerryGarcia.com, JerryBase.com and Lost Live Dead for statistical data, personnel information, setlists and other resources. ]


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