Interview: Jacklyn LaBranch Discusses Performing With Jerry Garcia Band & More

By Chad Berndtson Mar 26, 2019 1:30 pm PDT

Electric On the Eel, just out, is the latest archival release from the Jerry Garcia Band, and like most of the product from the Jerry estate, it’s quite a listen, exhausting to take in all at once and worth slowly unpacking.

A six-CD box set, it features Jerry & Co. performing in August 1987, June 1989 and August 1991 at French’s Camp On the Eel River in Piercy, California, and sports the classic JGB lineup — Garcia, keyboardist Melvin Seals, bassist John Kahn, drummer David Kemper and vocalists Gloria Jones and Jacklyn LaBranch — throughout.

LaBranch, who first joined the Jerry Garcia Band in 1982 at the invitation of Seals and was there through its 1995 swan song, says she feels honored to have been a part of the JGB fabric. It’s a fabric that, sadly, has another hole in it following the death of Jones this past February.

While it’s somewhat rare for LaBranch to perform with Dead or Jerry-related projects these days, she does continue to make appearances and will be aboard for a special performance by Melvin Seals & JGB at San Francisco’s Warfield on May 4, in tribute to Jones. We asked LaBranch to share some thoughts on her longtime musical comrade as well as the enduring legacy of the JGB.

JamBase: There’s a lot to pick out about these Electric On the Eel shows. Do you have specific memories of them?

Jacklyn LaBranch: I don’t have a lot of specific memories but I know there were a lot of friendly fans there, and it was nice being by the river. That’s back in the ’80s so it’s tough to remember, but I cherish all the memories I have of the band and our fans. We are all family.

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JamBase: We were all certainly sad to hear about Gloria, and you have our condolences.

JL: Thank you, yeah, I mean, I know she was really strong. She fought really hard to raise her granddaughter.

JamBase: What are your favorite memories of Gloria?

JL: Oh, I’d have to think on that, there’s just so many. We traveled so much together. I still have a hard time with it because her passing was so recent. [pause] We were very different people and lead different lives, but whenever we came together it was like no time had ever passed. We were together last year [at the Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash in August 2018], and I know she was struggling, but she came through.

I remember when we first started, I taught her all of the songs. I’ll never forget that, just sitting there, learning all the songs we’d been asked to do and a whole bunch of other stuff.

JamBase: Did you get along right away?

JL: We got along right away. We really got along musically — we just blended very well. It was very easy for us to work together on music.

JamBase: It was Melvin who brought you into the band, right?

JL: It was. He asked if I was interested and I said yeah, sure why not? [laughs] That was the best year! [laughs]

JamBase: And you and Melvin stay in touch?

JL: Oh yeah, oh, of course. I do music with him at times, we have the gig coming up in May.

JamBase: Everyone talks about this version of the Jerry Band as the classic band. In your mind what made this group work?

JL: I think longevity. Yeah, we had been there the longest and were also the last before Jerry passed. We went through a few drummers but me, Melvin and Gloria were there for 12, 13 years. I think it was just a really good blend, and sometimes you find that. The personalities were great. It was a very cool group.

JamBase: You get asked this a lot, of course, but what do you remember most about Jerry?

JL: He was very laid back. Very laid back. I always used to tell people, if I was a fan of somebody, he was a great person to be a fan of because he was so approachable. A fan would come up to him and start talking to him, and he’d be right there with him, it was not like, stay away. I remember being in New York with Jerry and we went to a coffee shop and he was just sitting there and a guy comes up, and he asks Jerry, can I sit down and talk to you? And he was just like, sure. The fact that he just said sure ... you don’t see that everywhere.

JamBase: As a bandleader, did he give you and Gloria a lot of direction?

JL: No, it was to do our thing, with little input. He might tweak it every once in a while or make a suggestion but he knew me and Gloria were on it. We were on our stuff, all the time.

JamBase: No doubt. Do you have favorite songs from the Garcia Band repertoire?

JL: My favorites are “Dixie,” “Don’t Let Go” and “Dear Prudence.” I liked the songs themselves, and a lot of them I had never heard before we started singing them. But yeah, those, and “Lucky Old Sun.” “How Sweet It Is.” “Shining Star.” I have a lot of favorites I like.

JamBase: Any you don’t like?

JL: [laughs]

JamBase: Or ones that weren’t your favorites, how about that?

JL: Alright, yeah. Sometimes the slower ones. “I Shall Be Released” and “And It Stoned Me.” They were OK, but some others were more my favorites.

JamBase: Do you still sing regularly?

JL: Oh, I sing in church. I do special things with different people, when I can. It depends. I maintained a 9 to 5 job and did through all those years, so I was always busy. I actually just retired last year.

JamBase: Congratulations! Does it mean we may see more of you out there singing?

JL: Oh, probably. It really depends. But we have the tribute to Gloria coming up on May 4 and I’m really looking forward to that.

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