Published May 14, 2018There are discerning Grateful Dead fans out there, and then there are those who'll buy just about every newly unearthed vault release. The latest of these, Jerry Garcia's Before the Dead, is a real mixed bag. The five-LP/four-CD compilation of pre-Dead recordings (from 1961 to 1964) take us through Garcia's folk, bluegrass and old-time roots efforts, and considering how many bluegrass fans found their way into the genre through Garcia's efforts with mid-'70s super-ish group Old and In the Way, it's tempting to think there's something special to be found in these early acoustic guitar and banjo recordings, some of which feature long-time Garcia collaborator Robert Hunter.
The truth is, some of this material is terrible, and it's unfortunate that the entire first side of the vinyl set falls into that category. It's earnest, strummy, cliché late-night living-room folk, and while the curators claim it's the earliest known recording of Garcia, some things are perhaps better left in the vault. With the exception of "All My Trials," which hints at the trippier vibe of the Grateful Dead's early material, it's best to give this entire side a pass.
The coffee house performances on side two are only slightly better, and feature better material, like the traditional "Down in the Willow Garden," and the a cappella "The Wagoner's Lad."
On the 1962 material with the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, Garcia plays old-time banjo as well as guitar and, having developed his signature vocal style, no longer sounds like a member of the Kingston Trio. The material is a mixture of straight-up old-time music, most of it likely gleaned from New Lost City Ramblers albums, and bluegrass material. That same year's Hart Valley Drifters recording gives us a preview of future Old and In the Way songs like "Pig In A Pen." It's pretty rough around the edges (some tracks include dobro played horribly, for example), but worth a listen.
On the 1963 Wildwood Boys recording, we hear a more coherent bluegrass sound, with Garcia finally playing bluegrass banjo, and even an original tune, "Jerry's Breakdown." Garcia's duo show with his wife, Sara Garcia, might just be the jewel of the collection. Her voice and guitar playing, and the simpler format, are perfect for the material.
By 1964, Garcia has bluegrass greats Jody Stecher and Herb Pedersen on board. Basically, with each year, Garcia and his early bands sound a bit better, so the second half of this compilation is reasonably good. It even includes some hilarious bits of stage banter. But there's enough of this better material for a box set all its own, so the inclusion of the iffy early material isn't just unnecessary, it's a liability. Sure, hardcore Deadheads might love it anyway, but it's likely to turn more discerning listeners off before they ever get to the good(ish) stuff. (Round Records)