7 Jerry Garcia Side Projects: New Riders, Rainforest Band, Legion of Mary & More
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Jerry Garcia, and we're not going to pretend you don't know that he was perhaps the most influential member and guitarist of the Grateful Dead. But, what you probably didn't know, was that—like any good jam band member—he was involved with a number of other groups in his day. Here are seven of the other, more prominent groups that Garcia was a member of before, after and during his time with the Dead.
Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions (1964)
It's a surprise to no one that the Grateful Dead were influenced by all sorts of music, but country and traditional American music had perhaps the biggest impact. Indeed, although Garcia was strongly influenced by rock 'n' roll and R&B, his earliest attempts at bands were tied into bluegrass. One of the most prominent of his pre-Dead bands was Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, a group that specialized in jug music...or a genre emphasizing jugs and other homemade instruments. He was joined in this group by Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, an eventual cofounder of the Grateful Dead, and it would eventually change its name to The Warlocks, adding Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann as a percussionist. Pretty soon the band's sound would evolve to move away from jugs, forming what is now known as the Grateful Dead.
New Riders of The Purple Sage (1969-'71)
Although the Grateful Dead brought the country influence with it into psychedelic rock, Garcia would eventually look for a more countrified outfit to express his Western feelings. Country rock was huge at the time of the band's founding, as Bob Dylan and The Band had taken the world by storm, so Garcia and buddy/fellow guitarist David Nelson founded New Riders of The Purple Sage (another indication of Garcia's fondness for lengthy band names at the time), with Garcia contributing mostly on a pedal steel guitar. He would stick around long enough to record the band's debut album, 1971's self-titled release, before devoting more time to his bigger band. Nelson has stuck with the New Riders to the present day, releasing 27 albums with the group (live and studio).
Old and In The Way (1973-'74)
Country rock and bluegrass are in the same vicinity but still miles apart stylistically. O Brother Where Art Thou was still nearly 30 years away from kickstarting the biggest surge in public bluegrass appreciation, so you can say Jerry Garcia was ahead of his time when he formed Old and In The Way with mandolin player David Grisman, whom he met at a Bill Monroe concert. The group never released any albums during its time together, however five albums have been dropped from the recording sessions in the 40 years since, the first coming during 1975. That self-titled album, featuring Garcia on banjo, peaked at no. 99 on the Billboard 200.
Legion of Mary (1974-'75)
Outside of the Dead, one of Garcia's most prevalent collaborators was Merl Saunders, a pianist and organ player noted for his use of the B3 Hammond. The first group that the pair were involved with together was Legion of Mary, a band founded to play live shows between 1974-'75. The group served simply as a change of scenery for Garcia, even as bore similarity to The Dead, specializing in bringing a variety of genres into play—from funk to reggae—but Legion of Mary put extra emphasis on jazz influences, which allowed Saunders to make his presence known. The band never did any studio sessions (that we know of), however a few live sets have seen release since the turn of the century.
The Jerry Garcia Band (1975-'95)
Garcia's least creatively titled band but also his most influential, lasting from 1975 to his death during 1995 in the downtime between Dead tours. One thing about Garcia that thrilled many and irritated others was his huge taste in music. On one hand, this made his legendary improvisations as unpredictable as anyone's, but it also meant that from album to album and concert to concert, things could sound entirely different. The Grateful Dead was a collective of course, so when Garcia really wanted to throw convention to the wind, he took to the road with his self-titled band. The lineup shifted constantly, aside from bassist John Kahn, who also spent time in Legion of Mary and Old and In The Way. Once again, Garcia didn't lend much attention to the studio, releasing only one studio LP and one live album with his band during his lifetime. Naturally, 20 albums from the group have emerged since his death.
Yeah, Kahn spent 20 years as a member of the Jerry Garcia Band, but he needed something to do while the guitarist was touring with the Dead, plus he didn't want it to appear that he was hopelessly attached to the axeman. He started Reconstruction during 1979 with guitarist Jerry Miller, of Moby Grape fame, but then that band's plans got in the way. So, somewhat ironically, Garcia signed on to play guitar with the group—along with Saunders—accompanying Hahn during its eight months of touring during 1979. Reconstruction, somewhat unfairly, has never seen any of its music released. Surely those live tapes exist somewhere?
The Rainforest Band (1990)
Kahn wasn't the only person looking to make music under his own name on the side from his work with Garcia. Saunders started a band during 1990, along with percussionist Muruga Booker and, of course, Garcia, to perform a mixture of blues and R&B, tied in with recordings of the rainforest. Although his name was on the band, when the group went out and toured behind the album, Blues From The Rainforest: A Musical Suite, the group acquired its name as "The Rainforest Band." Garcia didn't return for the group's next three albums, but the band will never be able to shake his legacy, regardless of how brief it was.