What would Jerry do?
That's a question posed by a bumper sticker, but it also adds context to this query: If a band exclusively plays the music of another person or group, whether dead or alive, shouldn't that group then be considered a tribute band and have a name reflective of such?
It's a question Melvin Seals and JGB should contemplate. JGB stands for Jerry Garcia Band. Jerry Garcia's dead; it was his band; he was the leader and founder.
Melvin Seals and JGB are scheduled to perform Wednesday, July 25, at Crescent Ballroom.
Yet Seals — who did perform in the Jerry Garcia Band for 15 years (which is only the third-longest tenure in the band) — says on his website that he "aims to continue the group's legacy." That's all well and fine, but the same can be said for True 2 Crue or Dark Star Orchestra or Purple Reign — all acts acknowledging that they are tribute bands intent on replicating the work of another.
Okay, so Seals, a fantastic electric organ player with a decidedly funky side who shone on Garcia's more rhythm and blues, gospel, and soul-influenced songs, was in the band a really long time (though not as long as former bassist John Kahn, who first played with Garcia and Howard Wales in 1970 on Hooteroll and spent more than 20 years in JGB). But it wasn't his band. Not even the Grateful Dead continued to call themselves the Grateful Dead when Jerry died.
Making matters worse, none of the other current JGB members — bassist Jimmy Teabeau, Tempe guitarist Dave Hebert (who plays with local Grateful Dead cover band Xtra Ticket), and drummer Pete Lavezzoli — ever played with Garcia in any form.
It's something of a conundrum. However, if the name means less than the music — and really, it should — by all means, attend the show. Much of Garcia's solo music had a much more spiritual side than his overall body of work with the Dead. Garcia's influences were widely varied, and he was a lover of Motown, soul, R&B, classic gospel, jazz, and reggae. He was deftly able to weave it all together into a fresh sound that allowed for soulful send-ups, extended improvisation and intense jamming — much like the work in his other band.
While clearly something different, this band — tribute by name or not — is faithful to Garcia's catalog. Seals didn't pick just anyone to cover Jerry, and all are top-notch musicians who decisively step into the moment. Seals, too, is way above board, a wizard of the electric piano and Hammond B-3 organ. Seals' rave-ups are as much gospel-inspired (as a youngster, Seals played music in his church) as psychedelic in nature and bring a spontaneous deep groove just made for spinners.
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While Garcia's catalog is deep — and the set changes every night — songs finding their way onto the tour include "Ruben and Cherise," "Cats Down Under the Stars," "Deal," "Catfish John," "Russian Lullaby," "Birdsong," and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." And that's just a dip in the Kool-Aid bucket.
So, let's face it: Seals means well. As is frequently stated in numerous articles, Seals and Garcia were close friends. When he says, "aims to continue the group's legacy," he's doing it out of love for the man, love for the man's music, and appreciation for the fans who want to hear Garcia's songs live and breathe.
So it's mostly all right, though maybe changing the name to something like For the Love of Jerry (also a bumper sticker) would certainly further clarify things without diminishing the intention.